"It's definitely troubling," said Washington County Health Officer Robert Parker. "None of them should be (selling to minors).
"I would hope our merchants in our community would try much harder to card anyone who looks like a minor."
Maryland had one of the highest violation rates in the country. Out of 2,769 stores checked, 1,190 sold to minors, a 43 percent violation rate. In 98,234 stores checked nationally there were 26,584 violations, or 27 percent.
Of 43 states and territories, only four had violation rates higher than 40 percent. Those included the Virgin Islands, Oklahoma, Georgia and West Virginia. Combined gas and convenience stores were the worst offenders, followed by general merchandise sellers.
FDA rules made it illegal to sell cigarettes, loose tobacco or smokeless tobacco to minors under the age of 18 starting Feb. 28, 1997. Merchants are required to check photo IDs for anyone under 27.
The regulations do not cover cigars or pipe tobacco.
In the summer of 1997, state and local law enforcement officials commissioned by FDA began making compliance checks. They typically work with a minor who then enters an establishment and buys a product.
For their first offense, merchants are notified by a letter explaining the law. Those who comply get a letter of congratulations.
Those who don't comply get repeat visits and monetary fines. The second offense is a $250 civil penalty, the third is $1,500, the fourth is $5,000 and the fifth is $10,000. If 36 months pass between violations, the process starts again.
The FDA estimates 3,000 children a year become regular smokers and one of every three will die from smoking-related illnesses. Tobacco use among minors rose during the 1990s, according to the Centers for Diseases Control.
A CDC national youth survey, conducted in the fall, indicates 12.8 percent of middle school students and 34.8 percent of high school students use some type of tobacco. The problem may be perpetuated by easy access.
"My daughter is 16, and cashiers have actually asked her if she wants cigarettes," said an FDA spokeswoman.
She watches people sell tobacco to kids when she shops.
"I see it all the time," she said.
"This is the kind of thing where people are going to get away with it unless someone is sitting on top of them watching," said Michaeline Fedder, president of Smoke Free Maryland.
The coalition organization opposes the use of tobacco and advocates higher prices for the products as well as restricted advertising and stricter controls of tobacco sales. Fedder said funding for statewide enforcement is crucial.
"We've just not had an organized approach," she said.
Gov. Parris Glendening recently proposed a 10-year, $1 billion effort to curb youth smoking, help tobacco farmers convert their crops and boost cancer research. It would use a portion of the state's share for a tobacco company lawsuit settlement.
The Tobacco Free Washington County Coalition, a group of about 18 members, works to educate merchants on the law. According to member Nell Stewart, the coalition sent nearly 300 letters to local bars, stores and other businesses last year.
"Tobacco is a gateway drug," she said.
Addictions counselors find a high correlation between tobacco and other drugs, according to Stewart. Not all smokers become addicts, but drug users are typically smokers.
While about 20 percent of state residents smoke, 22.7 percent of Washington County residents are smokers, according to Stewart.
The local coalition meets Wednesday at the Washington County Board of Education and holds monthly meetings. Contact Stewart at 301-791-3034 or Bonnie Forsythe at 301-766-2989 for more information.
The Washington County Health Department offers smoking cessation classes. For information on Stop Smoking For Life, call 301-791-3034.
To learn more online about the FDA's compliance program or merchants with violations, visit www.fda.gov/opacom/campaigns/tobacco/default.htm.