Howard County's new tobacco sales inspectors are to hit the streets this week to begin enforcing two recently enacted laws aimed at helping prevent underage youths from smoking.
The two men, whom Health Department officials won't publicly identify, will inspect the 270 county businesses that sell tobacco to ensure that product displays are out of the reach of customers and that tobacco is not being sold to youths younger than age 18.
"It's a new area for us, getting into law enforcement activities," said Dr. Penny Borenstein, Howard's director of community health services.
One of the inspectors worked on similar enforcement for state government, and the other has experience in a local sheriff's office.
"We don't want to issue citations," one inspector said. The goal is compliance with the law, they said, and no effort will be made to deceive store clerks.
"We're not trying to sting. Our lead enforcement officer has been working closely with Montgomery County," which has been using the same approach, Borenstein said. "We're modeling our [system] after theirs, and there will be a thank-you letter for those who do comply," she said.
The county law governing displays was approved late last year, but it has taken the county months to hire and train the two inspectors, who are paid with settlement money from the state's tobacco lawsuit. Merchants found in violation of the display law will get a warning first, Borenstein said.
A second county law approved later changed selling tobacco to minors from a criminal to a civil infraction. Violations will prompt an immediate citation - $50 for the clerk and $250 for the business owner. Anyone receiving a citation can pay the fine or file an appeal for a civil hearing in District Court.
"There has been a law on Maryland's books for over 100 years saying you can't sell cigarettes to minors," said Glenn Schneider, legislative chairman of Smoke Free Howard County Coalition, an advocacy group that pushed for the county laws.
That state law, however, makes the sale a criminal offense. Howard County, again following Montgomery's lead, passed the law to transfer enforcement responsibilities from county police to Health Department workers.
Vending machines, which are regulated by state law, are not covered in the county law.
County government and Howard County Chamber of Commerce notified all merchants of the changes by mail, and the chamber encouraged merchants to seek training for themselves and their employees offered by the Health Department.
"The merchants want to abide by and follow the law," said Ken Williams, chamber president. But they don't want to feel as if they are being held solely responsible for minors trying to buy tobacco products, he said.
Some Howard merchants are worried.
Jim Neubauer, whose family has owned a gasoline station at U.S. 40 and Frederick Road since 1947, fears that young workers who staff his station every evening might be tempted to sell cigarettes to their friends.
"I don't want kids under 18 getting cigarettes," he said.
"I have high school kids who start at the age of 16 or 17. I go home at 6 p.m. I can't imagine the peer pressure these kids are under. They want to impress their friends. That's what I'm fighting with," he said.
"We need to train the kids to handle the peer pressure," he said.
Neubauer feels the county hasn't provided enough training for teen employees at times they can attend. The last of three sessions is scheduled from 4 p.m. to 5 p.m. Nov. 26.
But county health director Dr. Diane L. Matuszak said the training is intended mostly for business owners because the turnover rate among young employees is high. Employers, once trained, can pass the knowledge to their workers, she said.
"He has the option of not hiring 16-year-olds. We can only do so much," Matuszak said.
But Howard County's tight employment market makes finding older workers difficult, Neubauer said.
Health officials said inspectors will work with student volunteers who will enter stores and try to buy tobacco products. If they are asked their age or asked to show identification, they will not try to deceive the clerk, the inspectors said. A citation will be issued only if tobacco is sold to a minor.
"We feel the county's on track to finally begin enforcing the law. We're quite pleased," Schneider said.