Sale of tobacco products to minors on the rise in Washington

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The number of retailers in Washington state illegally selling tobacco to minors has risen to its highest level in more than a decade, health officials said today.

In Walla Walla County, four out of 23 businesses monitored sold tobacco to minors in the recent compliance checks conducted by the state’s Liquor Control Board. That represents 17.4 percent, said Tim Church, spokesperson for the Department of Health.

That’s higher than the state average. The annual report that tracks illegal sales shows about 16 percent of tobacco retailers in the state sold tobacco to minors from January to June of this year — up from 11 percent in 2011 and 10 percent in 2010.

The youth smoking rate in Washington is at about 13 percent, cut nearly in half since 2000. But the rate of decline has leveled off in recent years, and the use of alternative tobacco products like chew, cigars, and hookahs is a growing concern, health officials found.

Compliance checks are conducted in conjunction with local law enforcement. Teens are assigned to try to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products at randomly selected retailers. Clerks who sell tobacco to minors can be fined up to $100 and retail owners can be fined up to $1,500. Licenses to sell tobacco are permanently revoked after multiple violations.

Avoiding the problem at the counter involves frequent training, Church pointed out. “In these positions, people are moving through them quite often. So we need to keep retailers educated and they need to keep their staff educated.”

Worse news is, every teen who begins using tobacco is more likely to carry the habit into adulthood, he said. “That’s why it is so important to keep tobacco out of teens’ hands, especially in that 15-19 age range.”

Part of the rise in noncompliance rates may be linked to the economy and to fewer state dollars funneled to local health districts for tobacco prevention efforts, Church explained.

Meanwhile, the tobacco industry continues to invest huge amounts of money to attract new smokers. In 2010, the industry spent about $80 million on marketing activities in Washington alone, he added.

Statewide about 70,000 youth still smoke cigarettes and 50 or so people start smoking each day. In Washington, nearly 8,000 people die every year from tobacco-related diseases.

For those reasons, there is a fair amount of agencies keeping an eye on retailers, Church pointed out. “And the likelihood of getting caught is high.”

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