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Protect minors from tobacco vendors

Retailers in SLO County illegally sold tobacco to minors at a rate far greater than the state average.



It seems the more savvy Californians become about the power of the tobacco industry, the more dollars it pours into its marketing and promotional campaigns. The tobacco industry spends an estimated $2.3 million per day for marketing in this state alone. But there are ways to combat this flood of money, starting in our own backyard. Communities and businesses can pass policies making it tougher for the tobacco industry to lure youth into a habit that causes the premature death of one in every three who begin smoking.

 We can start by limiting the location of new tobacco retail outlets. For example, new tobacco shops can be outlawed within 1,000 feet of a school. Since more than 80 percent of adult smokers started before they reached 18, eliminating youth access is a crucial strategy in fighting for the health of future generations.

 Eliminating illegal tobacco sales to children is something we should all be able to agree on. Kids and tobacco are a deadly combination. Yet every day in California, an estimated 300 children start smoking. Two-thirds then become addicted and half of those will die prematurely because they smoked.

 Although selling tobacco to minors has been illegal since the 1800s, retailers in San Luis Obispo continue to sell tobacco products to children. Fines for selling tobacco to minors in California already exist under the STAKE Act and Penal Code 308. Yet, in spite of these penalties, 29.8 percent of County retailers illegally sold tobacco to minors in March of 2010, which was double the California state rate of 14.6 percent. That means about one out of every three children who try to buy is illegally sold tobacco.

 Based on these statistics, it’s obvious that self-policing efforts by retailers and such tobacco-industry-sponsored programs as “We Card” are not working. It’s time to stop putting Band-Aids on this critical public health problem.

Although critics of a tobacco-retailer licensing policy believe it’s merely unnecessary government regulation, such a policy is an essential tool for ensuring that retailers comply with all local, state, and federal tobacco-related laws. Licensing tobacco retailers is a public health measure, not a business restriction or penalty. License fees are minimal and should be expected as a cost of doing business. They fund the enforcement of the laws. Only if the retailer continues to sell tobacco illegally to minors will they be subject to the suspension or revocation of their license. For many stores, tobacco sales make up a substantial portion of revenue. Losing the right to sell tobacco products is a greater financial deterrent than penalties assessed under existing laws.

 Requiring a license to sell tobacco products sends retailers the message we are serious about protecting our kids from the deadly addiction of tobacco. More than 80 communities in California have ordinances requiring tobacco retailers to obtain licenses to sell tobacco products, including Arroyo Grande, San Luis Obispo, Grover Beach, and the County of San Luis Obispo.

 Licenses are required for people who cut your hair, polish your nails and clean your teeth. Specific licenses are also required to sell alcohol, security alarms, and bottled water in vending machines. But cigarettes—a deadly product—can be sold in California without one.

 No other legal product sold in America disables and kills the majority of its lifelong users. The licensing of tobacco retailers is a common-sense approach to ensure that retailers take their responsibility seriously and that communities hold them accountable for keeping tobacco away from children.

 Policies can also be adopted that limit tobacco advertising and sponsorship.  Whether it be in stores or print media, studies show that kids are twice as sensitive to tobacco advertising than adults, more likely to be influenced to use tobacco by marketing than by peer pressure, and that one-third of underage experimentation with smoking is attributable to tobacco company advertising.

 Since 1970, smokeless, or spit, tobacco has gone from a product used primarily by older men to one used predominantly by young men and boys. This trend has occurred as smokeless tobacco promotions and advertising have increased dramatically and a new generation of smokeless tobacco products has hit the market. Far from being a “safe” alternative to cigarettes, smokeless tobacco use increases the risk of developing many health problems. Furthermore, evidence shows that teens who use smokeless tobacco products have a higher risk of becoming smokers within four years.

 596,000 youths now under 18 in California will ultimately die prematurely from tobacco use. There is no reason to face defeat in the war to save our children and loved ones from tobacco—especially when we can fight and win by adopting local policies to prevent it.


Christina Lefevre is a Health Education Specialist at the San Luis Obispo County Tobacco Control Program. Send comments via the editor at [email protected].

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