Hundreds Caught in Tobacco Stings

One in five store clerks illegally sold cigarettes to undercover teen-agers working for the police, the Pennsylvania state Health Department said yesterday in announcing the results of a two-month crackdown, according to the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

The state contracted with police departments throughout the state to conduct a 10-week crackdown from April to early June, using undercover teen-agers working for the police. Out of 1,000 convenience stores, drug stores, supermarkets and mass merchandisers stores visited, 214 citations were issued by police for the illegal sale of tobacco to a minor, which is roughly 20 percent.

Community leaders expressed outrage at the findings.

"A 20 percent sales rate is terrible," said Bill Godshall, executive director of SmokeFree Pennsylvania, an anti-tobacco organization. "If they came up with a 20 percent sales rate, it really means it's about 40 percent in actuality. You've got to be a pretty dumb retailer to get caught in one of these compliance checks."

The legal age to buy tobacco is 18. Violations carry a $25 fine for a first offense and $100 for subsequent offenses.

The state doubled its efforts this year to crack down on illegal sales of tobacco, checking 1,000 stores instead of the usual 500, and warned retailers the state will be increasingly vigilant about enforcing the law.

State Secretary of Health Robert Zimmerman said store clerks who were caught selling tobacco illegally gave a variety of excuses -- it was busy at the time, they checked the identification and just didn't calculate the age correctly, or they just didn't bother to check because the store manager wasn't there.

"There really is no excuse," Zimmerman said.

Over the past four or five years, checks have found 25 percent to 40 percent of retailers who were checked had sold tobacco illegally to teen-agers, Godshall said. A portion of the state's $11 billion tobacco settlement will go to increased enforcement of state tobacco sales laws, which have been on the books since 1901, but just how much has not been decided.
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