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Reports on Underage Tobacco Sales Questioned

The federal government is questioning why two different groups that conduct stings to find underage tobacco sales get such widely different results, according to an Associated Press report.

Both groups send 14- to 16-year-olds into stores to buy cigarettes while an undercover adult keeps watch. But teens working with state inspectors are able to buy tobacco in about 20 percent of the stores they visit, while those from a traveling church group hired by the state are turned away nearly every time.

The chance that two groups could produce such widely different rates are "pretty darn close to zero," said Elizabeth Stasny, a professor of statistics at Ohio State University.

Most of the checks are done by the Ohio Investigative Unit, an arm of the Department of Public Safety. But state law allows the unit to check only those stores that have a liquor license, so the state has a contract with Word of Life Christian Center to check outlets that sell tobacco only. The state pays the $70 a visit to the church in Lynchburg in southwest Ohio, $5 of which goes to the teen. Youth on the state squads are paid $10 hourly.

Ohio must meet a federal goal of having less than 20 percent of retailers sell tobacco to underage customers. Federal grants that support two-thirds of state alcohol and drug abuse treatment programs, $67 million this year, would be reduced by a rate corresponding to how much Ohio climbs above 20 percent.

In 2003, the first year of the contract, the church youth were able to buy tobacco just 1 percent of the time, while the state sting squads had a 25-percent rate. The total averaged 17 percent, keeping Ohio within federal goals.

Since then, state-run stings have met the 20-percent goal on their own, and are on track for a 14-percent rate so far this year. But the church group has had only one sale to a minor in about 600 attempts over the past year and a half.

"It is a problem. It's something that we have been looking at for the last three years in Ohio," said Grant Hills, a senior program management officer with the federal Substance Abuse & Mental Health Services Administration. Hills oversaw Ohio until this year, and said officials plan to visit Ohio to investigate the differing results.

It's unfair to compare the two groups, said Stacey Frohnapfel Hasson, a spokeswoman for the Ohio Department of Alcohol and Drug Addiction Services. Stores that also sell alcohol tend to have larger staffs and more turnover, while the tobacco-only stores have small staffs on the job long enough to better follow requirements to check identification.

The Rev. James Brown, the church's pastor and supervisor of the tobacco checks, pointed out another difference he sees as a flaw: Unlike the state unit, he is required to notify local law enforcement when he's about to conduct a sting.

"I've lived in a small community, and I know how quickly things can get out," he said. "It's human nature."
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