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Would you sell cigarettes to children?


"Isn't it illegal to sell cigarettes to 13-year-old students?" At the time the principal of Jefferson Junior High School asked me that question, I did not know the answer. As a police officer assigned to teach drug prevention to the more than 1,500 students in Woodridge, Illinois, a suburban Chicago community, I had received numerous complaints from teachers, parents, and even students that Woodridge merchants were selling cigarettes to minors.

What sparked the question from the principal was an incident involving a 13-year-old girl who was seen buying a pack of Marlboros from a Mobil Oil gasoline station just two blocks from the school. Cigarette possession by students is a school violation. The principal confronted the student, found cigarettes in her purse, and suspended her from school. Then he called me. "Isn't there something the police can do to stop this?" he asked. "I'll find out," I told him.

Illinois has an archaic state law adopted in 1887 that prohibits the sale of tobacco products to anyone under the age of 18. The law is a weak deterrent today. The penalty for violation is only $50. The manager of a gasoline station said he can easily average between $200 and $400 per day in cigarette sales.

The tobacco statute also has a loophole big enough to drive a truckload of cigarettes through: if a minor possesses a note from a parent or guardian, the child is exempt from the age restriction regardless of age. This means a police officer or a reputable merchant must verify the authenticity of a note before enforcing the law. Few parents are likely to want to involve their children in a police action over a forged note. I could find no evidence of the law's ever having been enforced.

The old statute, our chief of police agreed, is realistically unenforceable. But throwing in a bit of bluff is one of the tricks of the police trade. So in response to the principal's complaint, the Woodridge police sent a letter on city stationery to each tobacco-selling merchant. It stated that sale of tobacco to minors is a criminal offense under Illinois state law and also runs counter to our antidrug efforts. It closed with a warning that arrests would be made for repeat violations.

Perhaps I should explain why adolescent smoking is so important a factor in our antidrug efforts--because cigarettes are a "gateway drug" for teens. What starts as cigarette use and addiction at age 13 becomes marijuana use and dependence at age 15 and crack-cocaine smoking and addiction at age 17. There is a very real physical connection. Adolescents are unable to successfully deeply inhale and hold harsh marijuana smoke without first becoming accomplished cigarette smokers. Without cigarettes' "training" the lungs, adolescents merely cough up the marijuana smoke and are unable to become intoxicated. Ninety-two percent of regular adolescent marijuana smokers are also regular cigarette smokers, according to the National Household Survey on Drug Use.

The school was very happy with our letter, and the case seemed closed until I saw a news report on Channel 2 television, Chicago. A DePaul University study had found that 87 percent of merchants were selling tobacco to minors in violation of the 18-year age limit. The next day I called the study's author, Dr. Leonard A. Jason, to tell him how we had solved the problem in Woodridge.

"How do you know you solved the problem?" he shot back. "You won't know what effects your letter has had until you have scientifically tested for it." He said he would be happy to help with the test as an unpaid consultant.

I recommended to the chief of police that we run the test. "It will make us look good, chief," I said. "O.K.," he responded. "Good idea."

With Dr. Jason supervising, we decided to repeat the university study in Woodridge. We enlisted 13-year-old student volunteers to enter stores and ask for packs of cigarettes. The students wore jeans and sweatshirts, but no jewelry or makeup. If asked about their age, they were to tell the truth--13. I watched each visit from an unmarked patrol car. The results were alarming. In spite of the written warning, 83 percent of Woodridge merchants sold cigarettes to the teens. So much for all that good publicity.

The threat of the state law was obviously no protection, so on March 23, 1989, the town of Woodridge drafted a new city ordinance licensing the sale of tobacco products. That license has proved amazingly successful and has become a model for surrounding communities. It works much like a liquor license and costs only $50 to cover administrative and printing costs. Each licensee must post a sign in bright red, one-inch-high letters near every tobacco display that reads "The Sale of Tobacco Products to Persons Under Eighteen Years of Age Is Prohibited by Law." Sales to minors can result in suspension of the merchant's license to sell tobacco products and a fine of up to $500. Repeat offenders may have their licenses revoked.

To further limit cigarette accessibility, the law requires remote control and electronic lockup devices on vending machines. These devices, called Utah Remote, cost less than $50 and can be installed in 30 minutes. The locks are not required on machines placed where minors are prohibited.

The ordinance sets a minimum age of 18 for selling tobacco products to help eliminate the problem of younger salesclerks who might sell because of peer pressure. The ordinance also limits the free distribution of tobacco products to licensed merchants' stores. No one may distribute tobacco products within 100 feet of a school, childcare facility, or any building used for education or recreation programs for children.

Finally, minors may be cited with a mail-in "parking ticket" fine of $25 for possession of tobacco products and $50 for attempting to buy them. The citation doesn't go on the police arrest record, and we don't go sweeping through malls looking for kids with cigarettes. We do use the law when contacting minors for other violations, such as curfew infringements or juvenile nuisance and disturbance. Each officer attempts to contact the offending juvenile's parents before the end of his tour of duty. I feel it is unfair to place the entire onus of the law on merchants. Merchants who are harassed for refusing to sell to minors now have the option of calling the police.

Woodridge is consequently one of the few communities where it is illegal for children to smoke or possess tobacco. Only 12 states have such a law.

To make sure merchants were aware of the ordinance, we hand-delivered copies to them and advised that police would be monitoring compliance with 13-year-old special agents.

There followed a series of "sting" operations. The first of them found 33 percent noncompliance. The mayor issued warnings but no fines. The next enforcement showed just 10 percent noncompliance. This time the offenders, two national chain gasoline stations and one regional chain drugstore, received one-day license suspensions and $400 fines, none of which was contested. Our third and fourth sting operations showed 100 percent compliance with the tobacco ordinance. This, according to Dr. Jason, was a "first" in the country.

Unfortunately, Woodridge is only a small community surrounded by other communities with no such tobacco ordinance. Children can easily walk across the street to neighboring communities and buy cigarettes.

Our survey of 650 students at Jefferson Junior High School found 16 percent already are regular cigarette smokers, most having started at age 12. fifteen percent of the regular smokers use a pack a day.

I recently received a phone call from the principal of Lovejoy Elementary School in Alton, Illinois. He discovered a third-grade student, nine years old, with a tin of Hawken ruff cut Wintergreen dipping tobacco. The child said he had been buying it at the Clark gasoline station in front of his school bus stop.

In Woodstock, Illinois, I observed a merchant selling unpackaged individual cigarettes for a dime. The cigarettes were in a clear plastic container next to a red plastic bowl of bubblegum for a nickel. Although the clerk pleaded ignorance, it was clear the display was targeted at children. Few adult smokers would buy one cigarette for a dime. Such unpackaged sales are not illegal, according to the State of Illinois Revenue Department and the Federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, as long as the original tax was paid and the health warning was displayed somewhere on the container.

One purpose of government is to protect those in our society who are unable to protect themselves from danger. Certainly the protection of 12- or 13-year-old children from easy access to large quantities of an addicting and known cancer-causing drug should be the responsibility of government.

Until federal or state governments are willing to address this threat to children, local communities like Woodridge, Illinois, will have to regulate tobacco themselves. Unfortunately, without a national approach to this problem, even the best laws, diligently enforced, can be defeated by neighboring communities and states whose priorities lie elsewhere.

I believe that the 390,000 American lives lost each year to smoking addiction will not be meaningfully reduced until we address the issue of cigarette sales to children on a national basis. If we are to win the war on drugs, American politicians must become as concerned with nicotine drug sales to children as they are with foreign drug sales to adults. every day another 3,000 children start using tobacco.
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Author:Talbot, Bruce
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Sep 1, 1990
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