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DHS news release

January 26, 2004

Contact: Patricia Feeny (503) 945-6955
Program contact: Jeff Ruscoe (503) 945-5901

Editor's note: For information about reporter"ride alongs" during the compliance inspections, please contact Karl Nelson with the Oregon State Police at (503) 378-6517 x: 272

Tobacco retailer inspections help prevent underage buying

Next month Oregon's 2,000-plus tobacco retailers will be the focus of a new round of compliance inspections aimed at furthering the reduction of sales to minors.

Teenagers and plainclothes police officers will attempt to purchase cigarettes or smokeless tobacco at randomly selected department and drug stores, mini marts and grocery stores, tobacco shops, bowling alleys, RV parks and golf courses.

Now in its 11th year, the federally required inspections produced an illegal sales rate of 16.2 percent in 2003.

Minimum legal age to purchase tobacco products is 18 years old.

Jeff Ruscoe, a prevention specialist for the Oregon Department of Human Services, said the compliance checks have proven to be essential in curtailing tobacco sales to minors.

"Tobacco use is a public health issue, and that's why it's so important to make sure kids aren't buying tobacco from retailers," he said. "The inspections send a message to retailers that the state is serious about this."

Clerks who sell to buyers under age 18 are subject to a fine of up to $600. Sales have been less than 17 percent for the past three years. In the most recent round of inspections ending in spring 2003:

•The highest sales rates were recorded in Tillamook (52.1 percent), Columbia (48.6 percent), and Clatsop (39.5 percent) counties.

•Illegal sales rate for smokeless tobacco was 3.6 percent, compared with 16.5 percent for cigarettes.

•The 243 grocery stores visited had an 8.64 percent sales rate, the lowest of any retailer category. The highest sales rates were 26.56 percent for visits to 64 tobacco shops and 29.47 percent for visits to 95 "other" outlets such as bowling alleys, golf courses and RV parks.

One of the reasons grocery stores have a lower illegal sales rate is that tobacco purchases require vendor assistance, Ruscoe said. The transaction requires direct interaction between the clerk and the buyer, which increases the likelihood the seller will look at the individual and ask for proof of age. As a result of 2003 legislative action, all tobacco sales in retail stores must be vendor-assisted beginning in January 2005.

Ruscoe said eliminating self-service practices also reduces theft - another way for minors to obtain tobacco products.

"If we can dry up even one source, it's one less source we have to worry about," he said.