When kids want a smoke, it's easier to buy

More local stores are selling tobacco to minors, state says

By Marissa Harshman, Columbian health reporter

Published:

 

Retailers across the state are making it easier for youths to get their hands on tobacco products.

A new report shows Washington retailers are illegally selling tobacco to minors at the highest rate in the past decade.

From January to June of this year, about 16 percent of tobacco retailers in the state sold tobacco to minors, the reports says.

In Clark County, nearly 19 percent of retailers sold to minors, according to data provided by the Washington State Department of Health.

The annual Synar Report tracks the results of tobacco compliance checks across the country. In Washington, the report uses figures from checks performed by the Washington State Liquor Control Board.

During compliance checks, teens working with state officials try to purchase cigarettes and other tobacco products at randomly selected retailers. Clerks who sell tobacco to minors can be fined up to $100, and retail owners can be fined up to $1,500. Licenses to sell tobacco are permanently revoked after multiple violations.

For years, Clark County health officials also performed compliance checks, said Theresa Cross, a health educator for the county health department. Cross found that most often, retailers sold to minors without ever asking for identification. When clerks did ask for ID, they looked at the card but didn't actually check the birth date, she said.

The county ended its compliance program last year due to reductions in state funding.

Higher illegal sales

State and local compliance checks have yielded increasingly higher illegal sales numbers since 2009, Cross said.

In 2009, about 10 percent of retailers statewide and 9 percent of local retailers sold to minors. In 2011, the state rate was about 11 percent, while the county rate had climbed to nearly 17 percent, Cross said.

"It's troubling when you see (the rates) going up because kids are only going to be purchasing cigarettes if they're going to be smoking them," she said.

Recent teen smoking rates reveal more teens are lighting up. After years of declining, smoking rates among 12th-graders are now increasing. This year, about 20 percent of 12th-graders reported smoking cigarettes, Cross said.

Comprehensive prevention programs — which include compliance checks, retailer education, cessation resources and smoking policies — help keep smoking rates down, Cross said. But dwindling state funding has led to scaled-back prevention programs, she said.

Prevention funding lost

At the height of prevention funding, the state provided Clark County with about $23,000 for youth access efforts. In the last fiscal year (June 2011-July 2012), Clark County received $18,700 for youth efforts. The money was used to provide limited education to the 562 retailers licensed to sell tobacco in Clark County, Cross said.

The county also received federal and tobacco settlement money for prevention efforts but has since lost that funding entirely, she said.

The liquor control board isn't the only agency performing compliance checks, however. The Food & Drug Administration performs regular checks throughout Clark County. The results of those checks can be found on the FDA site.

Marissa Harshman: 360-735-4546; http://twitter.com/col_health;http://facebook.com/reporterharshman;marissa.harshman@columbian.com.