Editorial: Smoking out the violators

Published 12:00 am Friday, July 1, 2011

Store clerks are doing a better job of keeping tobacco products out of the hands of minors, federal officials say. Thatís the good news. The not-so-good news is that North Carolina retailers still arenít being as vigilant as they should be when making tobacco sales.
Nationwide, retailers sold tobacco to minors 9.3 percent of the time in random, unannounced checks conducted during 2010, according to a new survey from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Thatís a drop from the 2009 violation rate of 10.9 percent and the lowest rate of illegal sales in the surveyís 14-year history. But while many states can boast of single-digit violation rates, North Carolina wasnít among them. Retailers in the state sold tobacco products to minors 14.8 percent of the time, according to study data.
That still puts North Carolina below the 20 percent violation threshold required for compliance under a federal-state partnership to reduce tobacco sales to minors. But it leaves room for significant improvement and indicates store employees need to be more diligent in checking the IDs of youthful customers. That was also obvious earlier this year when a three-month statewide operation cited 115 store clerks for selling tobacco products to minors. That operation, conducted by the N.C. Division of Alcohol Law Enforcement, included 766 compliance checks in 36 counties. In Rowan, 26 checks resulted in two illegal sales. Cabarrus had three violations out of 41 checks, while in Iredell, 16 checks resulted in eight violations. The results are particularly noteworthy given funding cuts that may affect statewide anti-smoking campaigns directed at youth, as well as the resources available for enforcement activities like those conducted by ALE.
Underage users have different ways of getting cigarettes or smokeless tobacco, from prevailing on an adult to make the purchase to buying from a fellow minor with access to tobacco or even buying over the Internet (although thatís illegal as well). Preventing tobacco sales to youth wonít in and of itself bring down the youth smoking rate. But itís an important part of a comprehensive youth anti-smoking effort that needs to include health education and parental involvement. In North Carolina, selling tobacco to anyone under 18 is a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine or 30-day community-service sentence. Employees who handle cigarette sales need to know the law and check IDs. The next young customer might be an undercover buyer.