Tobacco sales to youths falling thanks to program
A yearlong effort at curbing tobacco sales to minors in Indiana is paying off, but state officials say it's only part of a more comprehensive strategy needed to reduce teen smoking.
"There is not one single, magic-bullet answer, be it enforcement or media" said Karla Sneegas, executive director of the Indiana Tobacco Prevention and Cessation Agency. "It's when you have all those pieces working together that you have a change in the way youth start to think about tobacco."
The agency plans to begin an extensive, anti-tobacco media campaign combined with community events later this summer or in early fall. Much of it will be funded with proceeds from the national tobacco settlement.
The state already has stepped up enforcement of the law banning the sale of tobacco products to those under age 18.
Last month marked the first full year of the Tobacco Retailer Inspection Program, which is overseen by the Family and Social Services Administration's Division of Mental Health and Addiction.
Under the program, youth ages 15 to 17 work with off-duty police officers and try to purchase tobacco products. When violations occur, fines are levied not only against the store owners, but also the clerks who sold the products. Civil penalties range from $50 for a first offense to $500 for the fourth one.
Since the program started in May 2000, more than 4,700 retailer inspections have occurred. Violation rates have fallen from an initial high of 41 percent to about 27 percent now. Although it has been illegal to sell cigarettes to minors for several years, there was no statewide enforcement effort until the TRIP initiative.
"Local law enforcement agencies were challenged in trying to enforce this, and you had many prosecutors struggling with high case loads, so this was one that frequently didn't get attention," said FSSA spokesman Andrew Stoner.
The Alcoholic Beverage Commission handles TRIP prosecutions.
The Tobacco Cessation and Prevention Agency recently announced a new partnership with the Indiana Excise Police to increase the number of retail inspections. They also have a toll-free number -- 1-866-278-6736 -- people can call if they see stores violate the law.
Sneegas said Indiana has the fourth-highest adult smoking rate in the country, and most smokers start young.
The state also has a financial incentive to reduce underage smoking. Under a 1992 federal law, states can have some of their federal money for mental health and addiction services withheld if they don't meet compliance goals.
In 1999, the target rate of noncompliance in Indiana was set at 25 percent. Through an inspection program separate from TRIP, 27.9 percent of establishments checked that year sold tobacco products to minors.
Indiana didn't pay a penalty because the law allows states a 3-percent cushion above the target. In 2001, the noncompliance rate for Indiana was 21.7 percent -- below a new target of 24 percent.
"Regular enforcement is one way to lower the noncompliance rate," said John Viernes, a deputy director in the Division of Mental Health and Addiction.
Thursday, Sneegas' agency will begin a round of meetings to outline its funding process for community-based programs and its five-year objectives. The meetings will be held in Fort Wayne, Gary, Seymour, Indianapolis and Evansville.