Washington state sees spike in tobacco sales to minors

The number of Washington retailers selling tobacco to underage minors spiked considerably in 2012 to 16 percent, up from 11 percent last year and 10 percent two years ago, according to the Washington State Department of Health (DOH).

“This is unacceptable. Our young people should not have access to these deadly tobacco products,” said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky. “Most adult smokers start as teens, so if we can keep tobacco out of the hands of kids, it’s likely they’ll never take up this dangerous habit.”

According to the DOH, the agency works closely with retailers that sell tobacco products to make sure sales such as these don’t happen. One of the biggest challenges faced by retailers and the DOH is the high turnover rate of most retailer employees.

The DOH cites budgetary issues for the increase in sales. Budget restrictions have left the agency, and local retailers, with fewer resources on educating employees about proper procedures for selling tobacco products.

There is also a fight with Big Tobacco, which, according to the DOH, spent approximately $80 million on marketing campaigns in Washington state last year.

The DOH compiles its statistics in an annual report known as the Synar Report. The report is the result of federal legislation that “requires states to enact and enforce laws that prohibit the sale of tobacco products to minors, and to conduct annual, unannounced inspections of retailers.”

Here in Washington, compliance checks are performed by local health agencies and the state’s Liquor Control Board. “Secret shopper” teens are sent into stores to see if they can purchase tobacco. Any clerk who sells tobacco to an underage teen faces a $1,500 fine, and if a store is a repeat offender, the store’s license to sell tobacco products is permanently revoked.

Along with that, the DOH has incentive to make sure the rate of illegal sales doesn’t rise, because if it pushes upward of 20 percent, the state loses out on $14 million in funding for drug, alcohol, and tobacco prevention and treatment. While the compliance checks are the main defense against these illegal sales, the DOH notes that anyone can report a violation by contacting the state Liquor Control Board website

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