Is drop in sales of tobacco to U.S. youths an illusion?
WASHINGTON â€” While tobacco sales to underage youths appeared to drop recently, researchers worry it may be an illusion caused by states using easy-to-spot undercover youths in compliance tests.
The U.S. General Accounting Office, a research arm of Congress, says 43 of the 50 states use some youths younger than 16 to test whether stores sell cigarettes to minors.
"Research suggests that using such minors can artificially lower violation rates" because they are easier to spot than, say, 16- and 17-year-olds, the GAO said.
The GAO said violation rates had appeared to have recently declined nationally, from a 40 percent violation rate by retailers in 1997 to 24.2 percent in 1999. But the report said using too many youthful undercover agents might have artificially caused that drop.
The agency worries that stores often fail to check identification for borderline youths who appear they might be 18 but are not, so including too many younger youths in undercover tests skews the actual situation nationally.
Utah is among the states that use 14- and 15-year-olds as undercover agents. The GAO said 13 percent of undercover tests in Utah in 1999 were conducted by youths that age â€” the second-lowest percentage among the states who use agents that young.
On the other end of the spectrum, 94 percent of all tests in North Carolina (home to much of the nation's tobacco industry) and New Hampshire were conducted by undercover 14- and 15-year-olds.
Sixteen states use 14- and 15-year-olds in more than half of their undercover tests, the GAO said. Three states even use some undercover agents who are younger than 14.
The GAO said some states have found that compliance rates are far different for 14- and 15-year-olds than for 16- and 17-year-olds.
"For example, Tennessee reported that 14- and 15-year-old inspectors were able to purchase tobacco 16 percent of the time, whereas the 16- and 17-year-olds had a 51 percent purchase rate," the GAO said.
In New York, "14- and 15-year-olds were able to purchase tobacco 8 percent of the time, whereas the 16- and 17-year-olds had a 21 percent purchase rate." The GAO said many states acknowledged using the younger youths because they were often more willing to participate in undercover tests.
To qualify for a variety of federal health funding, Congress has required states since 1992 to take steps to decrease tobacco sales to youths, including reporting on attempts by undercover youths to buy it and the penalties given to violators.
GAO recommended that the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration revise protocols to ensure a proper mix of ages in undercover tests.
The GAO said that is important because, "Every day, about 3,000 young people become regular smokers. It is estimated that one-third of these youth will die from smoking-related diseases." It added that research shows, "If children and adolescents can be prevented from using tobacco products . . . they are likely to remain tobacco-free for the rest of their lives."