WALLA WALLA — The number of retailers is Washington state illegally selling tobacco to minors has risen to its highest level in more than a decade, health officials said Wednesday.
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.
Local businesses caught selling to minors were Walgreens, Sunmart in Burbank and on North Second Avenue and Good Guys PDQ on Ninth Avenue, officials said.
The PDQ in Dayton sold to underage shoppers, as well.
That amounts to 17.4 percent noncompliance, said Tim Church, spokesman for the Department of Health, higher than the state average. The annual report that tracks illegal sales suggests about 16 percent of tobacco retailers in the state — 600 stores were checked — sold tobacco to minors from January to June of this year. That’s up from 11 percent in 2011 and 10 percent in 2010.
The smoking rate among 10th graders in Washington is just over 12 percent, cut nearly in half since a Healthy Youth Survey done in 1999, which showed 25 percent self-reporting they had. The survey asks if the student has smoked at least once in the past 30 days, Church explained.
In 2000, tobacco settlement money began funding a number of education and prevention programs for teens and adults, he said. “We’re confident that the result was those dropping numbers.”
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. As well, funding for prevention is now gone, save for some dollars for retailer education, he said.
The retailer 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 said. “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, a fair number of agencies keep an eye on retailers, Church pointed out. “And the likelihood of getting caught is high.”
Smoking rates and other data from the 2012 Healthy Youth Survey will be available in the spring,
For more information about the Washington’s Healthy Youth Survey go to www.doh.wa.gov/DataandStatisticalReports/HealthBehaviors/HealthyYouthSurvey.aspx