City to begin tobacco sting

Health Department's initiative will target business sales to minors

7,000 merchants sent warnings

May 01, 2002|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

The Baltimore Health Department will begin teen sting operations this month in an effort to deter merchants from selling tobacco to those under 18 years old, the city's top health official said.

Underage teen-agers will be sent into restaurants, groceries and convenience stores three to four times a week to try to buy tobacco products. If they are successful, the merchants will receive a $500 fine for selling to minors.

Health Commissioner Peter L. Beilenson sent letters to 7,000 merchants warning them the teens are coming. The department also hired a former police officer who will issue citations and fines.

The letter, dated April 15, says Baltimore has the highest mortality rate in the state for oral and lung cancers.

In 1999, the most recent year statistics are available, lung cancer caused 533 deaths in the city and oral cancer caused 30 deaths, according to the Maryland Cancer Registry.

"Tobacco use is single largest cause of preventable death in Maryland and the United States," Beilenson said. "We're trying to keep kids from ever taking up the dirty, dangerous habit."

He said that if teen-agers don't smoke by the time they're age 19, there is a greater than 90 percent chance they will not smoke the rest of their lives.

The teen-sting effort will cost the city about $50,000 a year, which is paid for with settlement money from the state's tobacco lawsuit.

Similar programs have been used elsewhere in the region, including Howard and Montgomery counties.

In Baltimore, the Health Department conducted a dry run recently with the underage teens, who are being recruited and trained by the University of Maryland School of Law.

They found that of 25 establishments, they were able to buy tobacco at 13.

No citations were given, Beilenson said, because the program had not started, Beilenson said.

As the department tries to catch merchants selling to minors, the enforcers also will be looking for two other violations: selling "loosies" or single cigarettes, which carries a $150 fine, and selling tobacco products that are not behind a counter, which brings a $500 fine.

"We want people to know we are very serious about this," Beilenson said.

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