Teen cigarette sales up sharply according to new survey
BOSTON - The number of stores that illegally sold cigarettes to teens more than tripled this year, following budget cuts to state anti-smoking programs, according to a new survey.
In a sting operation run by the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, teen volunteers attempted to buy cigarettes in 68 municipalities that stopped performing spot checks of tobacco sales. The teens successfully bought cigarettes in 29 percent of stores they visited in February, March and April. Last year, comparable figures in the same stores showed that 9 percent sold cigarettes to underage buyers, the Boston Globe reported.
Lori Fresina, regional director for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids, called the results ``alarming and depressing'' after years of reducing tobacco use on the local level.
``And hopefully it's a wake-up call to Beacon Hill, because they have the opportunity with their budget to reverse this,'' she said.
Last year, the budget for the state Tobacco Control Program was cut from $49 million to less than $6 million and public health authorities eliminated grants for 143 anti-smoking programs run by local health boards. The money paid for enforcement of second-hand smoking regulations, community education and compliance checks to ensure stores weren't selling cigarettes to minors.
If the results of the survey are affirmed in an ongoing state Department of Health review, Massachusetts could lose $6 million in federal substance abuse dollars. Any state documenting that at least 20 percent of stores sell cigarettes to teen forfeits the money.
As part of the survey, teens were told to ask store clerks for a pack of Marlboros, and not to try to cajole or badger them. Teens were sold cigarettes in 64 of 221 stores.
Cheryl Sbarra, director of the Tobacco Control Program at the health board association, said she expected the increase after enforcement measures were cut.
``I'm not suggesting it's malicious and willful,'' she said. ``It's just that it's not in their face anymore.''
Cathy Flaherty, executive director of the New England Convenience Store Association, agreed that enforcement helps ensure compliance. But she said stores don't want to break the law because 30 to 50 percent of their sales are from cigarettes and they don't want to lose their license to sell them.
``When a product is that prevalent in your sales, you do anything and everything to protect it,'' she said.