2002 ushers in tougher state tobacco sales laws
Juneau -- On New Year's Day, the party ended for merchants caught selling tobacco to underage smokers in Alaska.
It's part of a host of laws that took effect Tuesday to change existing laws to compensate victims of crimes, lower fees for some commercial fishing permits and increase the speed at which some health insurance claims are handled.
The tobacco law would impose mandatory fines and other penalties for stores caught selling tobacco to people younger than 18.
The measure was passed by the Legislature in 2001 to address the high rate of teen smokers in Alaska and to preserve a $1.5 million federal substance abuse grant, said the lawmaker who sponsored the provision.
"The laws are not to hurt people, but they are trying to make people understand we have a problem," said Rep. John Harris, R-Valdez. "We have a very serious problem with people selling (tobacco) to minors."
Merchants face a $300 fine and a mandatory 20-day suspension of their tobacco endorsement if a clerk is convicted of selling tobacco to minors.
Fines and penalties increase with each subsequent violation over two years, culminating with a $2,500 fine and a one-year suspension for a fourth offense.
Previously, the state had the discretion to suspend a store owner's tobacco license for 45 days for the first offense but imposed no fines.
Fines of up to $300 remain on the books for clerks who sell cigarettes to minors.
Elmer Lindstrom, special assistant with the state Department of Health and Social Services, said the law is intended to reduce the number of appeals. It makes suspensions mandatory unless the store owner chooses to fight the suspension.
The law also increases the cost of a tobacco license from $25 to $100.
Alaska had until July 2001 to implement a plan to reduce the incidents of teen smoking or risk losing $1.5 million in federal block grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Other portions of the law took effect previously.
States are required to conduct random inspections using decoy buyers to ensure no more than 20 percent of stores are in violation. Alaska's rate was 40 percent under a 2000 inspection, Lindstrom said.
Other new laws:
Make changes in the fees paid by commercial fishermen. Among other things, it repeals a provision of state law that required out-of-state commercial fishermen to pay three times the rate of a resident permit.
Generally require a health care insurer to pay or deny group health insurance claims within 30 days and pay interest on a claim that is not paid in time.
Add the Bristol Bay Salmon Classic as a form of charitable gaming to fund a scholarship for young people in the economically depressed area.
Make changes to the law allowing for victims' compensation. The same measure established an Office of Victims' Rights.