Damage Control

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Damage Control

By Hank Behar - 03/02/2011

Carding customers has never been more important, and proper training can mitigate the risk

Scene: A convenience store in Buffalo, N.Y.

A customer asks for a pack of Marlboros. He's six feet tall.

It's Sept. 23, 2010.

The clerk: "May I see your ID, please?"

Him: "Sure." (He shows the clerk his driver's license.)

The clerk checks the date of birth. It's May 13, 1989, and sells him the Marlboros.

Question: Did the clerk do the right thing?

Answer: No.

Surprised? After all, the ID says he's over 21 years old and he's a pretty big guy. He looks over 21. But in this instance, the clerk left a few things out of the carding procedure. Those omissions could cost a c-store owner big penalties and possible loss of his or her license to sell tobacco products.

While the convenience industry has made strides over the past several years to tighten its carding procedures, new regulations from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) that went into effect June 2010 have added new federal requirements to the longstanding state and local mandates.

So, what did the clerk do wrong? First, he didn't turn the license over to see if it had a bar code or a similar imprint on the back. He also didn't check the expiration date, or if the description fit the customer, or if he even matched the photograph. And the clerk failed to sweep the card with his fingers to see if it had any bumps, bubbles or other indications of tampering.

Carding, in other words, involves more than just checking the date of birth.

If this transaction had been monitored by an inspector and the sale was made to a minor because the clerk didn't card him properly, the store owner may have broken not just state law, but federal law as well. The result could have been a fine for both the clerk and the store, and penalty points for the store. Too many points and the store could lose its tobacco license, which is tantamount to a death sentence since most c-stores can't survive without tobacco sales.

Cigarettes accounted for 33.7 percent of sales for convenience store chains last year, according to the Convenience Store News 2010 Industry Report.

PENALTIES VARY

In New York, for instance, this clerk could have been fined $500 (assuming it was his first violation). The store's fine could run to $1,000, but more seriously, it would have been slapped with two penalty points toward suspension of its tobacco and lottery licenses.

It takes just three points in three years to trigger a six-month suspension of a store's tobacco and lottery licenses in New York State, so two points doesn't leave much wiggle room for another offense. Another violation and another two points would push the store over the fatal three-point threshold — with the added insult of a $500 to $1,500 fine.

However, there's one mitigating circumstance that could lessen the penalty. If the employee who made the illegal sale had been trained and certified by a Health Department-approved provider such as the Responsible Retailers of New York Online Training Program, which uses content from the We Card program, the store would receive only one point for each violation. Thus, it could survive two infractions and still have time to get its house — and employees — in order.

Here are We Card recommendations on how to card properly:

■ Card anyone under 27 years old.

■ Keep the tobacco product off the counter and away from the customer to avoid a grab-and-run.

■ If the customer offers a card in a wallet, ask him or her to remove it and hand it to you.

■ Sweep your finger across the card. If you feel bumps or if the photo is raised, it's probably been altered.

■ Flip the card over and look for a bar code, magnetic stripe or other information. If the back is blank, it's probably a fake.

■ Check the date of birth, description, photo and expiration date.

■ If there's a possibility of danger, make the sale.

INDUSTRY INITIATIVES

Mitigating circumstances notwithstanding, the c-store industry has been acutely aware that tobacco sales to minors is a losing strategy. When Congress enacted the Synar Amendment in 1992 (named for its sponsor, Oklahoma Congressman Mike Synar), which is aimed at decreasing access to tobacco products by those under 18, the industry embraced its provisions.

The result has been a spectacular reduction in store violations. In 1997, the violation rate was 40.1 percent. This past year, ending Sept. 30, it was 10.9 percent. North Dakota had the lowest rate, at 1.6 percent, while the highest rate of violation belonged to Oregon, at 18.8 percent.

Much of the effort contributing to this success rate has been driven by c-store chains such as Circle K. In 1999, it was the first national convenience store chain to voluntarily restrict access to tobacco products by minors by designing special display units that put cigarettes, cigars and smokeless tobacco behind its sales counters and out of the reach of customers. This was combined with specialized training for the retailer's employees.

More recently, in April 2010, Valero entered into an agreement with the California Attorney General to eliminate vending machines in its company-owned stores, administer independent compliance checks, and limit in-store tobacco advertising, among other measures.

Gas stations in particular have felt the spotlight, since according to a survey cited by www.consumeraffairs.com, 47 percent of underage youths who reported buying cigarettes said they got them at gas station c-stores. As a consequence, multi-state agreements similar to that of Valero have been adopted by Conoco, Phillips 66, 76, Exxon, Mobil, BP, ARCO, Chevron and Shell.

Smaller chains and independent operators more often have relied on state associations for assistance in training. In a recent newsletter, for example, the Missouri Petroleum Marketers and Convenience Store Association (MPCA) pointed to We Card as a source for training programs and materials. Single-store owners can find a list of local and state convenience store associations with contact information at www.singlestoreowner.com.

What's the Law in Your State?

To find out each state's provisions governing tobacco sales to minors, follow this click chain:

www.wecard.org >

We Card Online Training (Click To Train)>

TRAIN NOW!!! >

Click Here To Train [choose either Large Screen or Small Screen]>

Law Library>

[select your state]>

Done!