In a deal that underscores the challenges and obligations of doing business in polyglot New York State, five major chains that sell prescription drugs have agreed to provide customers with information about them in the customers’ primary languages, the office of Attorney General Andrew M. Cuomo announced on Tuesday.
The agreements stem from a lengthy investigation by Mr. Cuomo’s office that found that pharmacies across the state, in violation of the law and at great risk to customers, routinely failed to provide information about medication in a language their immigrant customers could understand, officials said.
“The need to understand prescription information can literally be a matter of life and death,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement. For those New Yorkers who do not speak English as a first language, he said, “this agreement will ensure they have the medical information needed to protect their health and well-being and that of their families.”
State law requires that pharmacists personally provide to patients spoken and written information about the dosage, purpose and side effects of prescription drugs, officials said. The law also prohibits pharmacies from discriminating against non-English speakers.
Complying with the law has become an increasing challenge for pharmacies in a state where the foreign-born population has grown to 4.1 million, or 21.3 percent of the total population in 2007, up from 3.8 million in 2000, or about 20.1 percent of the total population then.
According to census data, about 3 in 10 residents of New York State, and about half of the residents of New York City, speak a language other than English at home. There are an estimated 170 languages spoken in the state.
The agreement announced Tuesday involves Wal-Mart; Target; A.&P., which operates Pathmark, Super Fresh, and Food Emporium among other stores; Costco; and Duane Reade, the largest pharmacy chain in New York City.
Under the agreement, the retailers will equip their dispensaries with telephones that will connect customers with off-site interpreters working for language-service contractors. Some stores plan to provide dual handsets to allow pharmacists and customers to confer jointly with the interpreters, Mylan L. Denerstein, executive deputy attorney general for social justice, said at a news conference in Brooklyn announcing the agreement.
Ms. Denerstein said that customers at the five companies’ pharmacies will have access to interpreting services in more than 150 languages.
In addition, the retailers have agreed to provide written information about the medication they sell in five of the main foreign languages spoken in New York: Spanish, Chinese, Italian, Russian, and French.
Ms. Denerstein said the agreement was “a major undertaking” for the stores.
In a statement, Duane Reade said, “We applaud the attorney general’s efforts to upgrade prescription-translation services,” and noted that the company currently provides language translation services in 13 languages as well as telephone interpreting for more than 170 languages.
Last November, under pressure from Mr. Cuomo’s office, two other major pharmacy chains, CVS and Rite Aid, reached similar agreements.
The investigation began with a complaint filed in 2007 by a group of immigrant-advocates’ organizations, led by Make the Road New York, which works primarily with Latino immigrants in New York City.
“Over the past two decades, New York has undergone a major demographic shift,” the group’s co-executive director, Andrew Friedman, said at the news conference. “Literally millions of New Yorkers are in the process of learning English.”
While the state and New York City have tried to adjust to the increasing linguistic demands by providing services in an increasing array of languages, he said, “most New York State pharmacies have been lagging far behind.”
In an interview, Mr. Friedman said that the initial complaint to Mr. Cuomo’s office involved more than 20 customers who claimed they had not been able to communicate with pharmacists and could not read the written material provided to them. Most of the customers were Spanish speakers, he said.
One woman, he recalled, had been giving her child a medication by mouth, “and her kid kept throwing up.” She turned to Make The Road, which determined that the medicine was a topical drug. “We figured that if pharmacies were doing this badly in Spanish, they were doing significantly worse with other languages,” he said.