Cigarette sales to teens up sharply
The number of stores illegally selling cigarettes to teenagers in Massachusetts more than tripled in the past year, according to a new survey, after budget cuts forced health boards across the state to abandon their local inspection programs.
In an elaborate sting operation run by the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, teen volunteers were sent into shops to buy cigarettes in 68 municipalities that had stopped performing spot checks of tobacco sales. The teens were successful in 29 percent of the stores they visited in February, March, and April.
In 2002, comparable figures from the same towns showed that only 9 percent of stores would sell to underage customers.
''It's alarming and depressing to see that after years of progress on the state and local level of reducing youth tobacco use that it could unravel that quickly,'' said Lori Fresina, regional advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. ''And hopefully it's a wake-up call to Beacon Hill, because they have the opportunity with their budget to reverse this.''
When deep cuts were made last year to the state's widely emulated Tobacco Control Program - the budget plummeted from $49 million to less than $6 million - public health authorities eliminated grants for 143 antismoking programs run by local health boards across Massachusetts.
The money paid for enforcement of second-hand smoke regulations, community education, and compliance checks to be sure stores were not selling cigarettes to teenagers. Some cities, including Boston and Cambridge, still receive state money to run spot checks and were not included in the new report.
If this week's findings are backed up by an ongoing review by the state Department of Public Health, the stakes could be substantial: Any state documenting that at least 20 percent of stores sell cigarettes to teens risks forfeiting federal substance-abuse dollars. In Massachusetts, that could mean losing $6 million.
The 68 cities and towns included in the study stretched from one end of the state to the other, although there was a concentration in the suburbs west of Boston. In 2002, all 68 communities routinely performed spot checks on stores to determine if they were selling cigarettes to buyers under the age of 18.
In the past three months, the Association of Health Boards replicated those compliance checks, with teens visiting a total of 221 retailers. The teens were instructed to simply ask clerks for a pack of Marlboros. They were told not to sweet-talk the clerks or to become belligerent.
The result: The teens walked out of 64 of the 221 stores with cigarettes.
''I've always felt that this would happen, once these enforcement programs were shut down,'' said Cheryl Sbarra, director of the Tobacco Control Program at the association.
''The stores know the programs aren't out there anymore. I'm not suggesting it's malicious or willful. It's just that it's not in their face anymore,'' she added.
The executive director of the New England Convenience Store Association agreed that enforcement helps assure compliance. But Cathy Flaherty said that even without spot checks, stores that derive 30 percent to 50 percent of their sales from cigarettes are loath to risk losing their cigarette-sales license by selling to teens.
''This is their livelihood; this is their bread and butter,'' said Flaherty, leader of the 1,000-member trade group. ''When a product is that prevalent in your sales, you do anything and everything you can to protect it.''
As authorities at the state's Tobacco Control Program saw their budget being slashed, they had to make swift calculations about how they would devote scarce dollars, said Roseanne Pawelec, spokeswoman for the state Department of Public Health. They decided to withdraw grants from wealthier suburbs, which tend to have lower rates of smoking, and maintain their commitment to cities and towns with higher levels of tobacco use.
Walpole was among the towns that saw antismoking grants vanish.
''People knew they had to watch out for us, that we could come in at any time,'' said Robin Chapell, Walpole's health agent. ''Now, they know we're not coming in.''