Teen inspectors bought tobacco easily, state says
Teen-agers were able to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products illegally nearly 46 percent of the time in 11 Indiana communities recently -- and all they had to do was ask.
That rate is troubling to state officials who have dual reasons for curbing tobacco use by minors: First, it's not healthy for young people to smoke, and second, the state needs to meet a maximum "non-compliance" rate for illegal tobacco sales to minors or it stands the risk of losing federal funds.
Results released Tuesday were derived from inspections by undercover teens working with adults, including a police officer. The inspections are ongoing and will continue in all 92 counties.
In the first batch, 78 retailers were fined $50 each after teen-agers were able to buy tobacco products, said Louise Polansky, assistant deputy director for governmental relations in the state Division of Mental Health. They were among 170 retailers inspected from May 18 to June 10.
The inspections and fines are part of the Tobacco Retailer Inspection Program, or TRIP.
Teen-agers age 15, 16 and 17 are hired under the program to go to retailers and attempt to buy cigarettes. They do not use fake identification cards and they do not try to lie and tell a clerk they are older than they are, Polansky said.
"They just ask for them," she said.
This is the first time the state has conducted such inspections and tied them to fines for violators. The program was on line to begin earlier in the spring with $484,000 in federal funding, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in March that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration does not have the authority to regulate tobacco.
That killed the flow of funds from Washington, but Indiana decided to retool the program and fund it with state money.
It allocated $500,000 from the gambler's assistance fund, which ultimately will be repaid with money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement to which Indiana is a party, said Andrew Stoner, spokesman for the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration.
Under a separate program, state retailers are surveyed in a similar way -- with teen-agers attempting to make buys -- but violators are not fined. That data is used to develop the state's "noncompliance" rate, negotiated with the federal government.
States must reach their target rates or they risk losing money from the federal Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment block grants, Polansky said.
For 2000, Indiana's target rate is 24 percent. Last year, Indiana posted a 27.9 percent noncompliance rate.
The TRIP noncompliance rate of 45.9 percent doesn't bode well, but there are differences in the two surveys, Polansky noted. Most of the TRIP teen inspectors are 16 and 17 years old; for the nonfine survey, teens as young as 14 are hired.
No one under 18 is allowed to buy tobacco.
The younger inspectors tend to be denied tobacco sales more often, Polansky said.
In the 11 communities inspected first, teens were able to buy smokeless tobacco on one occasion and cigars on another. The other sales all involved cigarettes. The cities were Clarksburg, Clarksville, Corydon, Fort Wayne, Greensburg, Indianapolis, Jeffersonville, Lafayette, Merrillville, Sellersburg and St. Paul.
Grant Monahan, president of the Indiana Retail Council, said his group is vigilant in trying to educate retailers about the importance of the tobacco sales laws.
But, he said, it's tough for many retailers who employ minimum-wage clerks, many of whom are teen-agers themselves. The turnover rate at many retailers also is high, meaning new employees have to constantly be trained about the law and how to enforce it, Monahan said.
Still, he said the message to retailers is clear.
"Retailers have to understand their responsibility," he said. "What they should be doing if they have any doubt in their mind is to ask for ID."