Cigarette crackdown: Health department plans stricter enforcement of tobacco sales
The Allegheny County Health Department is poised to crack down on retailers selling cigarettes to minors.
Possible punishments include fines or, for repeated violations, suspension of the health permit required to sell food products.
Proposed fines are: $300 for the first offense, $750 for the second violation and $1,500 for the third time or more.
A health permit suspension might apply for those with multiple violations that show "willful disobedience" of regulations on retailers' part, according to health department spokesman Dave Zazac.
The county Board of Health is considering the regulation after its recent survey showed 67 percent of vending machine sites and 36 percent of over-the-counter retailers made illegal sales to minors.
At least one Valley retailer says the department is way out of line.
"Everyone is trying to regulate us on cigarettes and it's becoming really difficult for us,'' said Marcia Foertsch, director of operations for West Deer-based Glassmart Food Store chain, which owns 14 gas stations in the region. "People don't realize what we have to deal with on the front line."
According to the survey, six out of nine vending machines and 14 out of 39 retailers surveyed were found in violation of the law. The survey was conducted at randomly selected sites throughout the county, using underage youths between the ages of 14 and 17 who volunteered to check vendors for compliance.
"These violation rates are troubling, not only because so many vendors are making it easy for kids to start smoking, but (violation) rates above 20 percent could jeopardize federal funding to our county for important drug and alcohol programs," said department Director Bruce Dixon.
But Foertsch claims prevention has to start with educating customers. She said many of them get rude when they are asked for identification.
No Glassmere stores were in the department's survey.
In the Valley, Calligan Pharmacy in Tarentum and Jack's Service Center in Indiana Township were included in the 14 retailers the health department says didn't comply with the law.
Attempts to reach the owner of Calligan's, including a phone call and visit in person, were unsuccessful. An employee at Jack's, reached by phone, said neither he nor the owner of the store would comment.
Health permits have nothing to do with tobacco products. However, the loss of a health permit would be devastating for cigarette retailers that, at the same time, sell food products.
"We've been doing this (survey) over the last three years every six months," Zazac said. "If this regulation does go through, it would be on an as-needed basis. We would just be responding to complaints and be doing compliance checks."
Some local cigarette retailers don't seem to mind the county's involvement.
Thomas Moore, manager of Sheetz convenience store in East Deer, said his store is doing what it can do to prevent minors from getting their hands on cigarettes.
"If they look young, we card them," he said. "Ninety-nine percent of the time there's no problem. I haven't run into any difficulties."
Beverly Steighner, night store manager at the store, said it's the store policy to card those who are under 28 years old, and employees are aware of it.
Mae Langford, manager at CoGo's convenience store in Verona, welcomes the county's role in enforcing cigarette regulations.
"We have own store policy that clerks have to pay the fine and they lose their jobs" if they sell cigarettes to minors, Langford said. "We are very strict."
For small Valley police departments, the county involvement is welcome, said Harmar Chief Rick Toney.
"It helps us, too," Toney said. "It's pretty hard for a department with short manpower to do surveillance at certain retail stores."
Harrison Chief Mike Klein also welcomes the county's involvement even though he has the manpower to carry on sting operations on cigarette vendors.
"Their efforts will supplement ours," he said. "We are not going to turn down any help offered."