December 17, 2007
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After a number of years of encouraging signs that merchants weren't selling tobacco products to minors, health officials in Contra Costa County are disturbed about an increase in illegal sales to young people under 18 years old.
Contra Costa Health Services reports that before the county passed an ordinance requiring stores that sell tobacco to get a license and providing suspension of that license if tobacco sales laws are violated, the rate of illegal sales to minors was 37%. The rate dropped to a remarkable low of 2% in 2005-2006 but has surged to 34% in the past six months.
"We are very concerned about this," says Public Health Director Wendel Brunner, MD. "Young people are the prime target for the tobacco industry. Most of the people who become addicted to tobacco begin smoking when they are teens. That's why we need every merchant in the county to obey the law and be sure their clerks don't sell to minors."
The Contra Costa County Board of Supervisors approved an ordinance in 2003 requiring all of the approximately 100 stores in the unincorporated areas of the County that sell tobacco to obtain a license. Store clerks who sell to minors can be cited and fined up to $350 under state law. Owners of stores where illegal sales are conducted can have their license to sell tobacco products suspended or even revoked for repeated violations. Since the ordinance passed, there have been more than 450 inspections of retailers and 54 merchants have had their licenses suspended. The law allows for license suspension for up to 30 days for the first offense.
"We clearly have a problem," said Brunner. "We know that stores experience turnover among their staff and we're calling on local merchants to be sure they conduct regular training to remind their employees what the law says about checking IDs."
According to Brunner, Health Services' Tobacco Prevention Project is mailing educational materials to merchants in the unincorporated county and has training materials, including a quiz for clerks, available on its website at http://cchealth.org/groups/tobacco_project/ Besides the Contra Costa County ordinance, several cities in the county, including Concord and Richmond, have similar tobacco retailer license requirements.
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