‘Tis the season for free antibiotics. Retail health is not only promoting convenience; the sector is promoting ‘free’ health care in the form of antibiotics (at least until March 31st, 2009).

The cheap/free drug trend began with Wal-Mart’s $4 generic program, which launched in 2006.

Like proverbial dominoes falling, Target quickly joined Walmart. Then Kmart and food chains began to offer variations on the theme of cheap drugs.

The latest retailer to join the free drug trend is Wegmans, the 72-store family-owned chain headquartered in upstate New York. I’m fortunate to have a Wegmans in my community, and I’m a huge fan of the store.

Like grocery chains Publix, Meijer, Giant, and Stop + Shop, Wegmans will provide shoppers generic antibiotics free-of-charge from a list of 40. The retail cost of these drugs ranges from $8.99 to $13.99 on Wegmans’ price list.

In the store’s press release on the program, Wegmans CEO Danny Wegman said, “We understand the economic pressure families are facing, including the rising cost of health care, which is something I’m especially concerned about.”

Expanding convenient access to prescription drugs, A&P introduced a mail order drug and discount generic drug program this week. A&P’s “Live Better! Wellness Program” is offering a 90-day supply of more than 400 generic medications for $9.99. Albertson’s also expanded it discount generic drug offering this week, called “Rx-tra Savings,” charging $10.99 for 90-day supplies of over 500 generic drugs.

On the wellness front, Harris Teeter announced “yourwellness for families,” including a health guidebook offered at the chain’s 176 stores. Customers can also opt-in to receive e-mail health newsletters. The guide presents a 15-week wellness program incorporating nutrition and menu planning, exercise, and stress management.

Finally, Costco is bolstering its health offerings by allying with NutriSystem. Costco will be a new sales channel for the weight management company, with a special bundle of 35 days worth of food and free shipping priced at $259.99 for women and $284.99 for men. QVC also offers many permutations of NutriSystem food bundles on its NutriSystem portal storefront.

Health Populi’s Hot Points: As a young reader of Robert Heinlein’s science fiction long before I had my first economic course, I learned the acronym TANSTAAFL. Heinlein used the term as the title for the third section of his great book, The Moon is a Harsh Mistress.

It stood for, “There ain’t no such thing as a free lunch.”

So-called “free antibiotics” fall into the category of TANSTAAFL. Pharmacies are a large and growing source of revenue for food chains. According to the Food Marketing Institute, prescription drug sales account for over 10% of store revenues.

There’s another aspect of “free” being potentially costly. The World Health Organization has pointed out since 2001 that we are being confronted with the global public health challenge of antimicrobial resistance.

“Free” may encourage excessive prescription-writing by physicians, whose patients could demand antibiotics–even when they’re not warranted.

I’m all for convenience and value-based shopping. But consumers should be aware that a free antibiotic generates a lot of front-of-store revenues for food chains and other retailers — and when inappropriately used, will cost the public’s health a lot more than an $8.99 price tag.