Retailers across the state continue to illegally sell tobacco to minors at higher rates than much of the past decade.
An annual report that tracks the illegal sales shows nearly 15 percent of tobacco retailers sold to minors in 2013 — a rate similar to that in 2012. The lowest rate in the past decade was in 2006 when about 5 percent of retailers sold tobacco to minors.
In Clark County, the rate for 2013 was lower than the state rate. About 9 percent of local retailers sold tobacco to people younger than 18. The prior year, nearly 19 percent of retailers made illegal sales, according to data provided by the Washington State Department of Health.
While the local rate dropped in 2013, it hasn’t changed dramatically in the past decade, said Theresa Cross, a health educator for Clark County Public Health. Since 2003, an average of nearly 11 percent of retailers have sold tobacco to minors, according to the data.
“It’s troubling the rate hasn’t really changed,” Cross said. “Youth continue to be able to illegally purchase tobacco from stores.”
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. Retail owners can be fined up to $1,500 and have their licenses revoked for up to five years.
In Clark County, the state board performed 32 compliance checks in 2013. Each year, the board performs anywhere from 24 to 39 attempts locally.
The county has more than 500 tobacco retailers, according to the state health department.
The illegal sales are troubling to health officials because youths who smoke are more likely to smoke as adults, Cross said. In Clark County, 18 percent of 12th-graders admitted to smoking cigarettes in the anonymous Healthy Youth Survey administered across the state every two years.
“What it says to us is youth are addicted,” Cross said. “We know youth using tobacco are addicted. They aren’t experimenting.”
While tobacco cessation and prevention efforts have helped to bring down adult smoking rates, Cross worries those efforts will be countered by the steady tobacco use by youth.
“We’re concerned the gains we made, we’ll begin seeing reverses in them,” Cross said.
Illegal tobacco sales can also cost the state.
If the rate of retailers in the state selling tobacco to minors exceeds 20 percent, Washington could lose $13.5 million in federal funding for drug, alcohol and tobacco prevention and treatment, according to the state health department.
“It’s unacceptable that more than one in seven retailers in our state illegally sells tobacco to minors,” said Secretary of Health John Wies-man in a news release. “Stopping youth from buying tobacco is one of the best prevention tools we have. It only works when retailers follow the law. They must do better. The health of Washington’s youth is at stake.”