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Unger wants 2nd-offense jail time for giving minors tobacco

February 13, 2000|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. - People who sell or give tobacco to minors more than once could go to jail under a bill the state legislature is expected to vote on today, which is Tobacco Awareness Day.

Fines would increase for anyone who sells or provides tobacco to a minor, including clerks, store owners and customers who buy tobacco products on minors' behalf.

It is a misdemeanor in West Virginia to sell or provide tobacco to anyone under 18.

Under the bill, minors caught possessing tobacco would have to perform community service, in addition to the existing fine.

And for the first time, a jail sentence of up to 30 days could be imposed on a seller or provider after a second offense, if authorities believe the act was intentional.

The third offense would be a felony under the bill, and could lead to a jail term of one to three years.

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"If we're really serious about protecting children, and particularly their health, then we really have to be serious about cracking down," said state Sen. John Unger, D-Berkeley/Jefferson/Morgan, who is co-sponsoring the bill with Sen. John R. Mitchell Jr., D-Kanawha.

Unger said his bill bumps the penalty for a first-time sale of cigarettes to minors from the current $25 to a minimum of $100 and maximum of $200.

For a fourth offense within five years of the first conviction, the maximum penalty is now $300, but that would increase to $5,000.

Unger said the current law only fines business entities, but his bill penalizes individuals, too, with fines and jail terms.

His bill says that "any individual who knowingly and intentionally sells, gives or furnishes, or causes to be sold, given or furnished to any person under the age of 18 years any tobacco product" could go to jail after a second violation.

Employees and managers at several Martinsburg stores said they're already vigilant about proofing buyers. Many said they ask for ID from anyone who looks 27 or younger.

One shop owner complained that the proposed law appears to be another swipe at small businesses.

"It's easy to put the responsibility on the businesses," said Alberuni Kidwai, who owns the H-Mart Convenience Store on Winchester Avenue with his wife, Sitara.

"When you talk about putting penalties, you should put penalties on the parents," said Sitara Kidwai.

She said she and her husband have instilled in their son, Humza, 8, and their daughter, Habbiba, 5, a deep dislike for smoking.

"It kills you," Humza said.

"My answer's the same," Habbiba added.

While teenagers sometimes stand outside shops and ask adults to buy cigarettes or beer for them, "You'll never find my two kids standing there," Sitara Kidwai said.

Under the bill, anyone who purchases tobacco for a minor is considered just as liable as a store employee who sells it, Unger said.

Tougher penalties won't extinguish teens' quests to buy cigarettes, said Linda Mobley, a cashier at the 7-Eleven on King Street. "They're resilient," she said.

Jason Butts, 20, a manager at Weis Markets on Queen Street, said most local stores are strict, yet minors will always find a way to get cigarettes or alcohol.

Unger said he is proposing another law, punishing minors who use fake identification to buy alcohol, later this week. They would be fined and ordered to perform community service, and they would lose their driver's licenses for up to two years.

Shopping at the 7-Eleven, Dan Zaken, 22, said his identification is still checked when he buys cigarettes or alcohol. "I used to get mad ... but I understand," he said.

Both Mobley and Zaken mentioned the H-Mart as particularly careful when selling cigarettes.

"I'm 33 and he carded me," Mobley said.

Butts said that a potential jail sentence is too harsh for illegally selling cigarettes.

"I think it's too much," Butts said. "It's not like (tobacco) impairs your driving ability. You're just killing yourself."

Tara Sutphin, a clerk at Weis Markets, agreed. "There are worse crimes than that and people get off with just a few months," she said.

Mobley said there is already an incentive for most clerks to be alert. At 7-Eleven, she said, a cashier will be warned and fined the first time tobacco is sold to minors and fired if it happens again.

"I'm not sure if it's fair or if it's not," Ray Shillingburg, an assistant manager at Food4Less on Queen Street said. "But it will get (clerks') attention."

Unger said serial offenders will have the most to worry about.

"If you have three offenses, you must be intentionally doing this. As far as the honest mistake, it does allow flexibility there," he said.

Minors possessing tobacco now face a fine the first time. Unger said he doubts it is always enforced.

Under his bill, the fine would be $25 for a first offense, and violators would be required to perform eight hours of community service. The sentence for a second offense would be a $50 fine and 16 hours of community service, and a $100 fine and 24 hours of community service would be imposed for the third offense.

Unger said he envisions community service involving either picking up litter on highways or getting involved in a school-based tobacco-prevention program.

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