Northwest NEWS

May 21, 2001


Youth, money, cigarettes: Up in smoke

by Jeanette Knutson
   Staff Writer
   Now who would sell tobacco to a 12-year-old? Somebody's doing it.
   In King County, the average age of beginning smokers is 12.8 years, a Department of Public Health - Seattle & King County report says. These kids are getting their tobacco somewhere and Public Health is working to reduce their access to it. In fact, our county's public health department has one of the largest tobacco compliance check programs in the nation.
   A tobacco compliance check program, simply put, is a way to monitor the sale of tobacco.
   Teams of young volunteers go out with Public Health staff seven days a week to area retailers to attempt to purchase tobacco products: cigarettes, chewing tobacco, paper to roll cigarettes or loose smoking tobacco.
   They visit grocery and drug stores, convenience stores, discount stores, gas stations, restaurants and bars, smoke shops, bowling alleys, hotels and gift shops. The results of attempted purchases are reported to the Washington State Department of Health and the Washington State Liquor Control Board.
   Retailers who do not sell tobacco to the youth are presented with a certificate of appreciation. And this, of course, is what Public Health likes to see happen.
   "We expect to have clerks ask for an ID, read it and refuse to sell to minors," says Greg Hewett, program manager for Public Health - Seattle & King County.
   Retailers that do sell to youth get a fine, and three sales to minors within a two-year period results in the suspension of the store's tobacco license for six months, in addition to a fine.
   Clerks who actually do the selling get fined, too. Some stores even terminate employees who sell to minors, Hewett says.
   And there's a reason, he explains. Should a major grocery store, for example, lose its license to sell tobacco for, say, six months, that could represent a $60,000 to $70,000 loss in store revenue.
   Selling tobacco is big business ... all the more reason to comply with state laws.
   Tobacco compliance teams visit every retailer that has a permit to sell tobacco at least once a year. They also investigate every single consumer complaint of a store selling tobacco to minors. They do this with a compliance check within 48 hours of the complaint.
   And should a clerk sell to a minor during a compliance check, that store will be checked again within four weeks.
   The most recent data gathered shows Bothell and Carnation with 100 percent compliance. Kenmore has a 92.31 percent compliance rate (out of 26 checks, clerks sold tobacco to minors two times); Woodinville has an 84.00 percent rate (out of 25 checks, clerks have sold to minors four times); Duvall has a 66.67 percent rate (out of 6 checks, tobacco was sold two times to minors) and Fall City has not been checked ... yet.
   Hewett is encouraged with compliance trends. There is definitely an improvement over the 1989 compliance rates (the first year data was taken) when King County youth were able to buy tobacco 66 percent of the time they tried. As of the May 2001 compilation of compliance rates, King County minors are able to buy tobacco products an average of 7 percent of the time they try.
   "Retailers are doing a much better job," says Hewett.
   "But youth are still finding ways to get tobacco. Adult enablers are buying it for them," he says.
   Nationally, teens buy their own cigarettes 75 percent of the time. According to Public Health data, here in King County, only 26 percent of teens buy their own cigarettes.
   Store personnel report that kids are standing outside their stores bugging customers to buy cigarettes for them. It seems the pleading is worst between 3 and 5 p.m.
   But who would buy tobacco for a 12-year-old?
   Public Health statistics show that 18- to 30-year-olds would and do.
   Says Hewett, "The buyer may not be concerned about the health effects of cigarettes, but he'd better be concerned about who's watching in a car outside, because a $5 pack of cigarettes could end up costing $5,000."
   A fine of up to $5,000 can be levied against any adult who buys cigarettes for a minor, and putting a stop to adult enabling of this addiction is a local priority for Public Health.
   Some like to call tobacco one of those "gateway drugs," the kind that leads to future drug use. Studies show that tobacco may not necessarily cause young people to use harder drugs. But there is strong evidence that using tobacco sets up patterns of behavior that make it easier to take the next step and use other drugs.
   While using tobacco, young people develop behaviors that can also be associated with drug use, such as a willingness to take chances. They also learn, according to a Washington State PTA Every Teen Counts bulletin, how to obtain substances illegally, how to hide what they've done and lie about it, and how to deal with any guilt over what they've done.
   And what kind of parent would let a 12-year-old smoke?
   The state, the county and the community are not entirely responsible for keeping teens from smoking. Stopping teen smoking should begin at home. At the very least parents should notice that a child is smoking and initiate dialog about tobacco (alcohol, other drugs) and the need for peer-group acceptance, says the Washington State PTA.
   The good news is that most teens do not move beyond tobacco to use hard drugs. Whether or not they do depends on their personality, their family and their community.
   By the way, what kind of community would sell tobacco to minors?