Illegal tobacco sales to minors reaching new heights in Washington

The number of Washington retailers found illegally selling tobacco to minors has reached its highest level in more than a decade, according to a recent report from the state Department of Health.

About 16 percent of tobacco retailers statewide sold tobacco to minors between January and June of this year, up from 11 percent during the same time period in 2011, and up 10 percent from the same time in 2010, according to an annual report tracking illegal sales.

“This is unacceptable. Our young people should not have access to these deadly tobacco products,” said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky, in a press release. “Most adult smokers start as teens, so if we can keep tobacco out of the hands of kids, it’s likely they’ll never take up this dangerous habit.”

While state and local agencies continue to provide training for tobacco retailers to ensure they understand and follow the law, limited budgets and high levels of employee turnover in stores that sell tobacco is making retailer education and youth prevention more difficult, according to the health department.

State officials said the tobacco industry also continues pumping large amounts of money into the state to attract new smokers.

In 2010, the industry spent about $80 million on marketing activities in Washington, according to the health department.

The rate of stores selling tobacco to minors is monitored in the annual Synar Report, which was created by federal legislation that requires states to enact and enforce laws that prohibit the sale of tobacco products to minors, and to conduct annual random, unannounced inspections of retailers.

The report is compiled by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

Compliance checks are conducted by local health agencies and the state Liquor Control Board. In the checks, teenagers working with local law enforcement try to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products at randomly selected retailers.

Clerks who sell tobacco to minors can be fined up to $100, and retail owners can be fined up to $1,500.

Licenses to sell tobacco are permanently revoked after multiple violations.

While the official checks help determine the rate of illegal sales, anyone can report a violation on the state Liquor Control Board’s website.

The youth smoking rate in Washington is about 13 percent, according to the health department—nearly half the rate from 2000. But officials said the rate of decline is leveling off, and use of alternative tobacco products such as chew, cigars and hookahs is a growing concern.

Statewide, there are about 70,000 youth who still smoke cigarettes, according to the health department.

About 50 young people start smoking each day, and about 7,900 people die every year in Washington from tobacco-related diseases.

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