Bill targets tobacco sales

Businesses selling products to minors would face civil fines

March 23, 2001|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

Howard County merchants who sell tobacco products to minors would face civil fines under a bill submitted yesterday to the County Council.

County Executive James N. Robey said at a news conference that if the bill is approved in May, he would hire a Health Department inspector - paid from state tobacco settlement funds - to enforce the law. It is the second measure since December aimed at curbing youth smoking. A law prohibiting self-service tobacco product displays in stores took effect last month.

"Tobacco sales to minors have been illegal since the 1880s, but you wouldn't know it," Robey said, adding that recent school surveys show that 21.4 percent of middle and high school students use tobacco.

Burdening police with enforcing the law as a criminal offense doesn't work well, he said, which is why he wants Howard to join Montgomery County in trying a different approach.

Howard police received 88 complaints and issued 173 criminal citations last year for tobacco sales to minors. But Robey said police often have more urgent tasks and filing criminal charges is the wrong way to deal with the problem.

Using a civil approach "sends a message that this is a serious health threat, not a crime," he said. The bill exempts vending machines, which are state-regulated.

The proposed county law is more specific than the old criminal statute, Robey said, and provides escalating fines ranging from $50 to $1,000 - depending on the circumstances of the sale and the number of offenses.

The bill would prohibit selling cigarette rolling papers and coupons redeemable for tobacco products, though it would allow teen-age store clerks to sell the products as part of their jobs. It also exempts sales to people with a "valid identification" that shows the buyer is at least 18.

Dr. Diane Matuszak, county health officer, said her department will use tobacco settlement money to pay overtime for police to work tobacco sales cases until July, when two new health inspectors should be trained and ready. The new employees would make inspections and respond to complaints.

Preventing youths from smoking is important, said Mark Breaux, president of the Smoke Free Howard County Coalition, because "we can never un-addict as many smokers as the tobacco industry addicts."

The County Council unanimously approved a bill in December that bans self-service tobacco displays in stores, again following Montgomery County's example. No industry representative went to Ellicott City to oppose the measure, although tobacco industry lobbyist Bruce Bereano has said he believes only the state can legally regulate the industry.

The law also excludes vending machines, but imposes fines of up to $250 for a first violation and a maximum of $1,000 for a fourth.

County health inspectors will enforce this law as well. The bill was hailed by anti-tobacco activists, who said it also would help deter cigarette shoplifting by youths. It didn't take effect until last month because the council allowed stores 60 days to alter displays.

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