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Selling of cigarettes to minors is targeted

February 27, 1999|By BRENDAN KIRBY

The law forbids retailers from selling tobacco products to minors, but checkups show youths are allowed to buy cigarettes about a third of the time they try at Maryland stores.

So the state is preparing to launch an effort costing nearly $400,000 to lower the rate.

The federal grant will pay for almost 5,000 unannounced inspections of stores a year. Minors, accompanied by adult inspectors, will attempt to buy cigarettes and smokeless tobacco.

Their inspection reports will be given to the federal Food and Drug Administration, which can fine stores that sell such products to children younger than 18.

"The compliance checks will certainly help," said Tori Leonard, a spokeswoman for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Random checks conducted by the state over the past three years suggest there is lots of work to be done.

The state checked 832 outlets at random last summer and found that youths were able to buy tobacco products 35 percent of time - a big improvement over 1996, when youths were able to buy tobacco 54 percent of the time.

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Nonetheless, the 35 percent is still too high, public health advocates said.

"It's still a big problem," said Stacie Siekierski, area director for the American Heart Association. "The biggest problem is with female teenagers," she said.

Under the so-called Synar amendment, passed by Congress in 1992, states are required to halt sales of tobacco products to anyone younger than 18. Each state must monitor its enforcement efforts.

Pennsylvania and West Virginia have produced better results in stopping teens from buying tobacco products, according to the Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration.

In 1997, youths sent into stores in Pennsylvania to check compliance were able to buy cigarettes only 29.5 percent of the times. In West Virginia, they succeeded only 25 percent of the times.

Neither state has submitted information yet from its 1998 checks, said Lee Wilson, who directs the agency's tobacco control programs.

Leonard said the state has done well, exceeding federal targets each year the law has been in effect. That keeps the state eligible for $29.4 million in federal funds to pay for substance abuse prevention and treatment programs.

All states are required to have their efforts so effective by the year 2001 that youths are able to buy cigarettes only 20 percent or less of the times they try.

The problem seems to be worse with vending machines. Maryland's random inspections last summer revealed that minors were able to buy cigarettes from vending machines 70 percent of the times they tried.

"Especially with vending machines, the noncompliance rate is unacceptably high," Leonard said.

She said the FDA grant will give the underaged smoking law some bite. Under the program, stores can be fined $250 after a second violation. Penalties increase to $1,500, $5,000 and $10,000 after the third, fourth and fifth offenses.

No matter how aggressive the effort, however, teens will smoke as they long as they can afford it, said Siekierski, of the American Heart Association.

"They get alcohol, and that's illegal. They get dope, and it's illegal," she said. "They're going to get cigarettes."

Siekierski said she strongly supports Gov. Parris N. Glendening's proposal to raise the tobacco tax by $1 per pack over the next two years.

Opponents of the plan, however, contend the tax will push consumers over the border to stores in Pennsylvania and West Virginia for cheaper smokes.

Joseph R. Bartlett, R-Frederick/Washington, said he favors a more strict enforcement of the law and a better public education campaign. A dramatic tax increase could create a black market, he said.

"That's not going to help discourage teen smoking," said Bartlett, whose House Ways and Means Committee will consider the tax proposal this Wednesday.

Meanwhile, store owners said they often feel caught in the middle in the debate over teen smoking.

"The problem we run into is parents are right down the road and they send their kid to buy it, and we can't sell it to them, and then we hear it from the parents," said George Rowe, manager of Ernst's Market in Clear Spring. "It puts the store owner in the middle."

Tony Rivellino, who owns County Market in Hagerstown, said his grocery tells its employees to card anyone who looks like they are in their early 20s or younger.

"It's not an easy thing, but we're trying," he said. "We all have to be responsible We took the letter of the law and put it in our policy and our training manuals."

Rivellino said store placed all its tobacco products behind one counter about two years ago when the building was remodeled. That means shoppers must go to one spot for cigarettes rather than buying them at any checkout line, as is the situation many grocery stores.

John Gordon, one of owners of Gordon Grocery in Hagerstown's North End, said people sometimes come into the store without identification.

"We just don't sell it to them," he said. "We haven't had any problem."

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