DHS news release
This column was published in the March 2006 issue of ORHealth magazine.
By Rey Agullana
The scene could be any Oregon store that sells tobacco.
As a plainclothes Oregon State Police officer glances over the selection in the cookie aisle, a teen-ager who looks about 16 asks a clerk for a pack of cigarettes. The clerk asks the youthful-looking buyer for ID, the teen presents it, and the clerk does the math.
That's the way it's supposed to work and, in state-run inspection visits to about 400 randomly selected Oregon retailers annually, that's how it does work about five times in six.
In the nearly 12 years that Oregon has conducted these federally required retail inspection visits, we've seen tobacco sales to minors reduced by more than half.
Locally, eight of the 19 clerks approached in Marion County last year sold tobacco to minors, one of the 10 in Yamhill County did, and none of the five Polk County clerks sold. Across the state, clerks in 15 of the 36 counties declined to sell tobacco to minors we sent into stores.
That is not only significant but also important. Consider: Every day in Oregon, about 20 teenagers take up the tobacco habit. In a few years, three-quarters of them will be among smokers who say they want to shake the addiction. And years from now, a third of them will be among the 4,900 adult Oregonians who die annually from tobacco-related disease.
State law says that a clerk who sells a tobacco product to anyone under age 18 is guilty of a Class A violation for endangering a minor, which carries a maximum fine of $720. We much prefer the "no sale" response to seeing a clerk being cited.
Discouraging teens from buying tobacco has long-term results: The data tell us that people who haven't taken up tobacco by age 18 probably never will.
But despite being the leading preventable cause of disease and death, tobacco nevertheless has a real attraction for some youth.
The Federal Trade Commission estimated that tobacco companies spent $140 million in 2003 to advertise their products to Oregonians. The national Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids says tobacco companies spend $28 in advertising for every $1 the states spend on tobacco prevention. Some tobacco companies are even marketing flavored cigarettes, which an American Lung Association spokeswoman called "just a way to addict young people."
All 50 states conduct these retailer visits to try to increase compliance with laws forbidding tobacco sales to minors. Some people have called them "stings," but they really aren't. The Oregon news media report the start-up of these visits each year, we invite news reporters to ride along with the teen and police officer who visit tobacco retailers, and we provide merchant-education materials that store owners can use to train their clerks.
Oregon's state epidemiologist, Mel Kohn, M.D., put it this way: "The evidence is clear – we can reduce smoking and the death and disease that follow."
All adults, and especially parents, can help make that happen.
If you see a clerk asking a youthful-looking tobacco buyer for ID, mention to the clerk that you appreciate that he or she is not only enforcing the law, but also promoting public health. Clerks don't want to disobey the law, most clerks do ask for ID, but they sometimes fail to do take the time to do the math. Your small verbal kudo will remind the clerk of the health-related reasons to take make the extra effort.
As a parent, remember that you exert great influence with your kids – even if sometimes it doesn't seem like it. In survey after survey, both nationally and in Oregon, we've seen that teens whose parents deliver clear, consistent and repeated messages are more likely to do what their parents expect.
When it comes to kids and tobacco, the ultimate goal is plain: No Sale.
Rey Agullana is a prevention specialist in the Oregon Department of Human Services.
Oregon's Quit Line
Oregonians who want to stop smoking are invited to call the toll-free tobacco Quit Line: 1-877-270-STOP. Spanish-language callers should dial 1-877-2NO-FUME. Trained counselors are available every day from 5 a.m. to 9 p.m. to help callers create a plan, set a quit date, and offer practical, effective information and other resources that may be available through their employer or insurance plan. Studies show that people who use services such as this double their chances of successfully quitting.
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