Laws help curb sales of tobacco to teens

Enforcement effort aimed at merchants willing to sell to minors

January 16, 2003|By Larry Carson | Larry Carson,SUN STAFF

After 14 months' enforcement, Howard County's two new laws aimed at reducing the sale of tobacco products to teens appear to be bearing fruit - and fines.

"Just one year after health inspectors hit the street, the percentage of merchants willing to sell tobacco to minors dropped from 50 [percent] to 37 percent," said Mark E. Breaux, president of the Smoke Free Howard County Coalition.

The inspectors focused on enforcing a law that changed the ban on selling tobacco to minors from a criminal to a civil violation that is enforced by the Health Department instead of police. Volunteer county high school students are used to test whether a business will sell to minors, and 37 percent of the 221 businesses inspected sold them tobacco products.

FOR THE RECORD - Because of an editing error, an article in some editions of The Sun yesterday about Howard County's enforcement of laws against sales of tobacco products to minors misidentified Glenn Schneider, legislative director for Smoke Free Howard County Coalition.The Sun regrets the error.

Violators were given citations totaling $24,200, said Shanta Williams, director of tobacco control for the Howard Health Department. The county has collected $18,950 of that total. Williams said merchants appealed 27 cases to District Court, where 18 fines were dismissed because the inspector who issued those citations had left the job and did not appear for a hearing.

Health Department officials are seeking more volunteers, ages 14 to 17, to work undercover to test merchants' adherence to tobacco laws. They have set up a telephone hot line at 410-313-6249 to receive reports of businesses violating the law.

Inspectors also have checked 86 businesses to enforce the second law, which prohibits stores from using self-service tobacco displays as another way to discourage youthful smokers. Violations were found in 18.6 percent of the cases, Williams said.

Jim Neubauer, who sells tobacco products at his Exxon station at U.S. 40 and Frederick Road in Ellicott City, said he still worries that merchants are not getting enough training on how to avoid violating the law. But he added, "So far, I haven't heard complaints from other local retailers" about the county's effort.

Neubauer said that "once word gets around to the high schools that this place isn't any good [for buying cigarettes], they stop trying," he said. He still worries, however, that peer pressure on young cashiers at night could be hard for them to resist.

Kara Calder, president of the Howard County Chamber of Commerce, said her group "is very interested in the opportunity to educate" merchants and clerks about the laws and their enforcement. She has not heard many complaints from merchants about the laws, though, she said.

Glenn Schneider, legislative director for the chamber, said the group wanted to show that the laws are helping cut youth smoking rates because of concern that Maryland's state budget woes could limit or cut off the tobacco settlement money that is paying for much of the county's anti-smoking efforts. County health officials also are using the money for a smoking cessation program.

"Our progress and promise for future success could go down the drain if our state lawmakers don't fight for our county's tobacco program," Schneider said. With tobacco interests' traditional support of Republicans, including Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr., that's a worry, Schneider said.

"It's all up to the governor. The governor sets the budget. The legislature can only cut," he said.

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