Senator wants penalties against minor smokers
State laws on minors and tobacco products are filled with inconsistencies, Sen. Kermit Brashear pointed out during a public hearing on a tobacco-related measure.
A minor can legally "lay down $3 and say 'Give me a pack of Marlboros please,' " Brashear said.
"Why are there no penalties for minors personally?" Brashear asked several supporters of a measure to penalize stores whose clerks sell to minors. "What is this stubborn, blind refusal to hold minors responsible?"
The bill (LB333) would provide for $50 to $500 fines against stores whose clerks sold tobacco products to minors. Clerks already face misdemeanor charges for selling to a minor.
But the law does not penalize minors who purchase or possess cigarettes or pipe tobacco or chew, said Brashear, chairman of the Legislature's Judiciary Committee, which held the hearing.
Supporters of the measure that would create a centralized list of all stores that sell tobacco products and set up the fine system had mixed opinions.
Sen. Jim Jensen of Omaha, sponsor of the measure, said he had no problem with penalties on young people.
Hastings Police Officer Steven Murphy said Hastings does prosecute minors under a 2-year-old city ordinance. Since October 1999, about 65 youths have been given the option of a $100 fine or a $20 educational class after being cited for possession of a tobacco product.
But Mark Welsch, president of GASP, an anti-tobacco group, said children were the victims of a tobacco industry that "spends $1,000 a minute to get kids to smoke."
The most effective way to curb minor use is to go after the people who profit - the tobacco industry and the retailers, he said.
State law makes it illegal for anyone - even a parent or another child - to sell or give a minor tobacco products, Welsch explained. Those who sell or give tobacco products to minors could face up to three months in jail and a $500 fine if prosecuted and found guilty.
Clerks caught in compliance checks often are prosecuted under this provision.
It is illegal for a minor to use a tobacco product, but the minor can avoid prosecution and the $100 fine by saying where he got the product.
It is also illegal for a minor to lie about his age in order to purchase tobacco products.
But simple possession and purchase are not illegal.
The compliance checks - where officers send minors into stores to see whether they can purchase cigarettes - have helped curb sales to minors, supporters of LB333 said.
There has been a marked decrease in stores selling to minors over the past decade, from around 64 percent to the 20 percent range, according to Susie Dugan of PRIDE-Omaha, a group that works to prevent teen alcohol and drug use.
Retailers do train clerks and try to avoid selling to minors, said Sen. Tom Baker of Trenton, who owns a convenience story.
"But what do you do about parents who buy cartons and give them to their kids, or 18-year-olds who buy for younger teens?" he asked. "How do you expect retailers to police that?
"Retailers are not the problem," Baker said. "It's the kids and parents as far as I'm concerned."