Health and law enforcement officials in El Dorado County have released the results of a recent survey showing an increase in illegal sales of tobacco products to teens. Thirty-two out of 142 retail stores surveyed during the past two months in El Dorado County sold tobacco to underage youth. "Nearly a quarter (22.5 percent) of the stores surveyed were willing to sell tobacco to kids," said Christy White, Project Director for the El Dorado County Tobacco Use Prevention Program (TUPP). "That number is much too high. Selling tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18 is illegal in California."
The Youth Tobacco Purchase Survey was conducted on January 10, 2015, on the west slope of El Dorado County and on February 13, 2015, in South Lake Tahoe. The survey was a collaborative effort between multiple agencies in the county, including the El Dorado County Sheriff's Office, Placerville Police Department, South Lake Tahoe Police Department and TUPP staff.
Trained youth volunteers aged 14-17 entered retail stores and attempted to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products. Merchants who sold tobacco to youth received citations from law enforcement; those who did not sell tobacco were thanked by law enforcement. Follow-up letters were also sent to the merchants reminding them of the laws regarding tobacco sales to minors.
According to White, tobacco retailers are required by law to check identification, verify age and post state mandated age-of-sale warning signs. Retailers must post "Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement (STAKE) Act" signs with the "1-800-5 ASK-4-ID" phone number at each cash register. Signs furnished by tobacco companies such as "We Card" and "It's the Law" are not substitutes for those required by law. Retailers are also prohibited from placing tobacco and tobacco products in self-service displays. Tobacco and tobacco products must be behind the sales counter or in a locked display.
A similar youth purchase survey conducted in 2012 in El Dorado County found that only 11 percent of retailers sold tobacco to kids. "We aren't sure why the sales rates have gone up so much in this most recent survey compared to only a few years ago," said White. "We have conducted education to merchants numerous times over the past ten years, but stores often have frequent clerk and owner turnover. It is a continual challenge to ensure they are aware of, and following, the law."
White said that during the most recent survey, the majority of stores that sold tobacco to kids were located in the unincorporated areas of the county, but nearly every community had at least one store that sold. The only exception was South Lake Tahoe. "No stores surveyed in Tahoe engaged in illegal sales this time," said White. "We believe maybe the word got out to the merchants, so they were aware of the survey. In any case, we are glad no illegal sales occurred there."
White is hopeful the results of the most recent survey will remind merchants of their responsibilities. She is also hopeful parents and other community members feel empowered to speak up if they become aware of tobacco sales to youth. To report illegal sales to minors, the general public can call "1-800-5 ASK-4-ID."
Tobacco retailers with questions about the law, or who need copies of STAKE Act signs, may contact White at (530) 621-6142. TUPP is a program of the El Dorado County Health and Human Services Agency, Public Health Division. For more information about TUPP, visit www.edcgov.us/publichealth.
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