Tobacco sting hits home in Flagstaff

HOWARD FISCHER Capitol Media Services
azdailysun.com
Friday, September 30, 2011
PHOENIX — What are the odds that a teen can buy cigarettes in Arizona without even lying about his or her age?

If a yearlong undercover investigation is any indication, about 1 chance in 7.

And in Coconino County, where 9 of 27 merchants were caught, it’s 1 in 3 — eight of them were in the city of Flagstaff.

In a new report Wednesday, Attorney General Tom Horne said volunteers younger than 18 walked into nearly 2,000 retail outlets across the state, asked for smokes and got them.

In some cases, he said, clerks didn’t bother to ask for identification.

And in others, the teens gave the clerks an ID with their correct birth dates showing they had not reached the legal age to purchase tobacco, but they still were able to walk out of the store with tobacco.

Horne said that 1-out-of-7 rate of failing to comply with the law was pretty much the average in the Maricopa County, the state’s largest. But he said his underage volunteers found their bid for cigarettes easier in rural counties, with the average chances of making a purchase closer to 1 out of 4.

And the figures were even higher in Coconino, Graham, Greenlee and La Paz counties.

At the other extreme, only a small percentage of retailers in Pima and Cochise counties broke the law.

COULDN’T DO THE ARITHMETIC

Bertha Adame, one of the volunteers, told reporters how as a 17-year-old she managed to buy cigarettes six times within a two-hour period. And she said it wasn’t like the clerks were in a hurry, saying there were few customers on the store that Wednesday evening.

Adame said some clerks asked for her driver’s license, swiping the magnetic strip on the card through a reader designed to determine if the would-be buyer is of legal age.

“But they would just bypass it,” she said.

And sometimes, Adame said, the staffers just seemed incapable of doing the arithmetic, looking at the license and the date of birth and deciding to make the sale anyway.

Clinton Zeiner, another teen, reported similar experiences.

“They’d look at my ID, sometimes glance at it, sometimes not even do the math,” he said.

“And at certain times, they don’t even look at my ID,” Zeiner continued. “I just give them the money and walk away with the cigarettes.”

Adame, who said she has never smoked, said she volunteered to help because it’s “a nasty, bad habit you can’t get out of.”

CLERKS GET FINED

Horne is using the high rate of noncompliance to launch a campaign aimed not at the store owners but at the clerks in a bid to convince them to comply with the law. The ads emphasize that the fine of up to $300 Is levied on the person who makes the sale, not who owns the shop.

Only if there is a policy of selling to teens, Horne said, can the owner be penalized.

Horne said the undercover buying program dates back to 2002. He said that while the noncompliance rate is lower now than it has been, the number of clerks still willing to sell to minors remains too high.

Read the full article online here.

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