Feds are in Montana checking shops that sell tobacco
MISSOULA - Tobacco-checking federal agents are visiting Montana for the first time this winter, and retailers who are caught selling cigarettes and chew to minors could soon find themselves $250 poorer.
But in the big picture, health officials worry that the hot spots of sales to minors - Missoula and Bozeman - will drag down the state's average compliance figures and endanger $2.2 million in drug and alcohol programs.
Last year during state tobacco checks, 74 percent of merchants refused to sell to undercover minors, squeaking by the federal rule requiring 72 percent.
"But the Missoula and Bozeman areas were so terrible," said Ellen Brown, community health specialist with the Missoula City-County Health Department. "Unless we get on board, we're in trouble."
Missoula's showing was only 53 percent in checks in July of last year; Bozeman's was 31 percent.
Here's how it works: Merchants are forbidden by state and federal rules to sell cigarettes, smokeless tobacco or loose tobacco to people younger than 18. They're required to look at a picture ID of every tobacco customer appearing younger than 27.
The rules are enforced in two ways - state checks and federal checks. They're separate but somewhat intertwined. The state checks involve a scientific sampling of Montana's 2,000 or so tobacco retailers. A Havre-based company contracts with the state to send minors working with adults into stores to pick up cigarettes and try to buy them. If the clerk sells them to the teenager, he or she gets a $25 fine. On the fifth offense within three years, a $500 fine for the owner kicks in. The sixth can bring a three-month license suspension.
The state checks are tied to federal money for drug-and-alcohol treatment and abuse prevention through federal legislation called the Synar Amendment. It says that states must maintain a certain level of compliance with the tobacco laws - in Montana last year, 72 percent - or risk losing 40 percent of their federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grant money for states. Last year, seven states and the District of Columbia lost nearly $37 million of their money.
In Montana, that money is $5.5 million; the state could lose $2.2 million. In Missoula, $170,000 of that goes to the Turning Point program for substance abuse treatment, which is about 40 percent of its budget, said Western Montana Mental Health Center director Paul Meyer.
The level of compliance required goes up by 2 percent each year until it reaches 80 percent - next year, 74 percent, the next 76 percent and so forth.
"So there's a direct link between our tobacco sales to minors and our ability to provide treatment to people for chemical dependency," said Ken Taylor, prevention officer with the Chemical Dependency Bureau of the Addictive and Mental Disorders Division of the state Department of Public Health and Human Services.
"We're OK so far," he said. "We've been passing, just barely. It's not something we should get complacent about."
The federal checks, which began in Montana in December, differ from the state checks in that the 25 Food and Drug Administration agents will hit every tobacco retailer in the state.
"When you stop to think of that," Taylor said, "it's every grocery store, every quick market, still most restaurants, every bar, hotel lobbies, smoke shops, service stations."
Each retailer will be inspected once, then notified by letter if the establishment passed or failed. Each one that failed will be inspected again within 90 days. Another violation brings a $250 fine for the owner. On subsequent offenses, the fines go to $1,500 for the third time, then $5,000, then $10,000 and then on a case-by-case basis on the sixth offense and higher.
The federal checks are not tied to federal substance abuse money. However, they can help push Montana's compliance along, said Brown of the Missoula Health Department, who is also coordinator of the Tobacco-Free Missoula network of agencies that work on tobacco prevention.
In Missoula checks in April 1996, compliance was only 33 percent. In December re-checks, it rose to 50 percent. In October 1997, it was 67 percent. After a lapse of nearly two years, it was only 53 percent last July. But during a re-check in September of half of those that failed in July, only one failed.
"It does appear that more frequent checks lead to greater compliance with the law," Brown said. "When they know we're out there, compliance goes up."
Specialists guess that Missoula and Bozeman retailers face extra challenges because of large college-student populations that blend with the high schoolers, more turnover of clerks because they're in college towns and perhaps reluctance of college-student clerks to ask their peers for ID.
"It's very important that Missoula and Bozeman boost their compliance rates," she said. "It not only affects our own community. It's all tied together in the big picture."