Howard teens find smoking's easy

Group tests 51 stores, finds 26 would sell tobacco to minors

February 24, 2000|By Alice Lukens | Alice Lukens,SUN STAFF

In an unusual experiment, a group of Howard County high school students fanned out this month to gas stations and grocery stores to see how hard it would be to buy cigarettes in violation of state and federal laws prohibiting sales to minors.

Even they were shocked by the results.

"We couldn't believe it," said Manuel Salgado, a senior at Oakland Mills High School who participated in the study. "Your child has a 50-50 chance of getting a pack of cigarettes and getting addicted to nicotine at a young age."

Of 51 stores in their sweep, the students say, 26 sold tobacco to a minor -- despite, in many cases, signs saying that they would not do so. Six of the 26 stores asked for identification but sold cigarettes to the minors anyway.

Salgado and the other student volunteers presented their results yesterday afternoon at a news conference at Long Reach High School. The sweep -- and the ensuing press conference -- were organized by Students Helping Other People (SHOP), a volunteer program in some schools in the county.

Although police departments often organize tobacco compliance checks, it is unusual for a teen-led group to do so. Salgado said SHOP students might work with law enforcement officials in the future if asked but have no immediate plans to do so.

"We really don't have any plans for what we are going to do after this," he said. "We need the entire community to act together to solve this."

Sgt. John Superson, a spokesman for the Howard County Police Department, said last night that he knew nothing about the student initiative and didn't know how the Police Department would respond to it, if at all.

Wendell Harris, manager of the Exxon station on Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia, said he was surprised to hear that minors had succeeded in purchasing tobacco in his store.

"There's no way they got cigarettes from us because I'm general manager here and we card every single person, even if they are 30 years old," he said. "We got caught several months ago, and we're really really really really really strict now."

He subsequently acknowledged that an employee might have sold to a minor and implied that if he knew who it was, he would fire that person right away.

"That would be the end of that cashier," he said.

Barry F. Scher, a spokesman for Giant Foods Inc., said Giant would look into the alleged incident at the Ellicott City supermarket and follow up at the store level.

"We comply with all state laws, and we have a very formal internal program of training all of our people to prevent the sale of both alcohol and tobacco products to minors," Scher said. "We have over 5,000 store checkers, and we are constantly reviewing training procedures to make sure illicit sales are not made to minors."

Seven out of eight High's convenience stores did not sell to the minors, the SHOP students said. All three CVS pharmacies they tried refused to sell, as did a 7-Eleven in Laurel, two Safeway grocery stores, a WaWa in Hickory Ridge and Cigarette Depot in Laurel.

The idea for the study came from Coalition United for Good Health, a county nonprofit that helped the SHOP students organize yesterday's news conference and supplied them with adult drivers.

The tobacco compliance checks took place on Feb. 9 and 16, said Mike Denz, a senior at Oakland Mills High School.

The students received permission to conduct the sweep from Marna McLendon, the Howard County state's attorney, Denz said.

The teens followed some guidelines. They did not tell store vendors that they were part of a study because of concerns that word would leak to all cigarette sellers in the county and skew the results.

A minor buyer was always accompanied by a witness. The buyer would attempt to purchase tobacco while the witness would look at junk food or some other nontobacco item.

The teens involved in the sweep never purchased the tobacco products. Once the vendor entered the sale into the cash register, they would pretend they didn't have enough money for the sale and leave the store.

The teens had to sign a contract that said, among other things, "I will not try to trick merchants into selling me cigarettes," "I will not argue with merchants if they refuse to sell me cigarettes," and "I will tell merchants the truth if asked about my age."

Brad Bertolotti, a member of the Long Reach SHOP, said he entered an Exxon and showed a woman his ID upon request. He said she told him, "You're not 18," but sold him the cigarettes anyway.

"It was just very overwhelming for me," Bertolotti said.

Jamie Betts, 17, vice president of the Long Reach SHOP, said that while she was waiting in the hall to greet reporters for the news conference yesterday, a fellow student asked if she could bum a cigarette. Betts not only told her she didn't smoke, she told her about the SHOP sweep.

"I understand that they don't appreciate it now, but in the long run it's the best thing to do," Betts said.

Salgado agreed.

"If we save somebody from dying of lung cancer," he said, "then I don't think that's a bad thing."

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