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DHS news release

Feb. 6, 2008

General contact: Ken Palke, 503-947-5286
Program contact: Rey Agullana, 503-945-6998

Oregon retailer sales checks aim at curbing teen tobacco use


Hundreds of retailers throughout Oregon will receive surprise visits during the next six months to see if they are complying with laws that prohibit tobacco sales to persons under age 18.

This is Oregon's 14th year as a participant in the federal Synar Compliance Program aimed at putting a damper on youth smoking.

According to the 2008 annual Synar report, 15.6 percent of the clerks at 622 retail outlets sold tobacco to minors during 2007 compliance testing. That's up from 14.6 percent during 2006 compliance checks and the record low of 11.2 percent in 2005. Previous sales rates were: 2004, 17.8 percent; 2003, 14.6; 2002, 16.3; 2001, 17.5; 2000, 16.3; 1999, 23.2; and 1998, 18.3.

"These sales statistics tell us we've still got work to do in educating retailers and smokers about the health risks of tobacco use," said Bob Nikkel, Oregon Department of Human Services assistant director for addictions and mental health. "Retailers must continue to play their important role in protecting the health of our young people."

During tobacco inspections a retired Oregon State Police officer and a minor buyer visit randomly selected retailers. The minor, age 15-16, attempts to purchase cigarettes. If the clerk sells, he or she is cited for endangering the welfare of a minor.

Federal law requires states to enact and enforce laws limiting youth access to tobacco, and to perform community-based educational and preventive activities to discourage young people from using tobacco.

Last year more sales to minors occurred at mini marts, small markets and gas stations, while fewer sales were made at tobacco shops, department stores and drug stores. Most sales occur as a result of a clerk either not checking the youth's identification or checking it but failing to accurately compute the individual's age.

Nikkel said smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in Oregon and the rest of the United States. He expressed worry that decade-long declines in tobacco use have tapered off and recently have increased for specific age groups.

"Every time clerks check identification or refuse to make a sale, they're telling people that it's illegal for minors to buy and use tobacco -- and that's an important message we need to be reinforcing constantly," Nikkel said.

If a state records a sales rate of more than 20 percent, it can lose up to 40 percent of its federal substance abuse prevention and treatment block grant.

(Note: Reporters wishing to schedule a tobacco-inspection ride-along may call Sgt. Karl Nelson of Oregon State Police at 503-947-2243)