Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tobacco stings net 19 citations


Undercover sting operations caught 19 merchants selling tobacco products to minors on the South Coast this year, authorities said, approximately 16 percent of those tested.
Health officials teamed up with sheriff’s deputies to conduct the undercover buys earlier this year, during which underage decoys attempted to purchase tobacco products.

Illegal sales in Goleta dropped to 13 percent from 19 percent last year, with only four retailers selling to minors, according to figures from the Public Health Department. Santa Barbara’s rate increased slightly, from 18 percent from 16 percent, while unincorporated areas countywide dropped from 15 percent to 10 percent.
“We’re happy that sales rates have dropped,” said Dawn Dunn, the administrator of the Tobacco Prevention Settlement Program. “That is our whole goal, to keep tobacco out of the hands of minors.”
Authorities tested 117 stores on the South Coast out of a total of 210 retailers that sell tobacco products. Sgt. Alex Tipolt of the Santa Barbara Sheriff’s Department said the sting operations closely resembled undercover buys involving underage sales of alcohol.
One plainclothes officer observes the sale from inside the store while a uniformed officer waits outside. If the decoy is able to purchase cigarettes, authorities identify themselves and issue a citation.
A first violation could cost a clerk up to $200, according to the penal code section regulating illegal tobacco sales. Fines ramp up to $500 for a second violation and $1,000 for a third violation.
Beyond citations issued to the clerk who sold tobacco to a minor, officials also take action against the merchant. For first offenses, retailers receive a letter of warning.
“They’re sort of slapped on the wrist if you will,” Dunn said. “Once they do it twice in a two-year period, then the suspension potential starts to happen.”
Two merchants on the South Coast are facing a suspended tobacco sales license for 30 days following the latest series of undercover operations. Those businesses are still going through a review and appeal process, and their names have not been released.
“When they are suspended, they can’t sell to adults and they can’t advertise tobacco products,” Dunn said.
The highest rate for sales occurred in Carpinteria, where four out of 17 stores sold to minors. No tobacco retailers in Solvang and Lompoc sold to teenage decoys, marking the lowest rates countywide.
Funded by a settlement agreement between attorneys general and the tobacco industry in the 1990s, the Tobacco Prevention Settlement Program assists with enforcement operations, educational efforts about the health effects of tobacco use, and support and counseling for those quitting the use of tobacco products.

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