Rate of tobacco sales to minors continues to climb 

click to enlarge Under 18, No Tobacco sign, in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, July 26, 2016. - GARETT FISBECK
  • Garett Fisbeck
  • Under 18, No Tobacco sign, in Oklahoma City, Tuesday, July 26, 2016.

Under Oklahoma state law, clerks must refuse tobacco sales to anyone under age 18. That doesn’t always happen. When IDs aren’t checked, clerks ring up sales, collect the money and slide products across the counter to minors.

As detailed in 2016’s annual Synar report, Oklahoma’s Alcoholic Beverage Law Enforcement (ABLE) Commission, in partnership with the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (ODMH), records convenience and grocery store compliance efforts as part of a federal program. The results from the unannounced, random compliance checks are later reviewed by federal officials, who then distribute federal funds based on the report’s findings.

Twenty years ago, ABLE agents determined nearly half the convenience and grocery stores they checked sold cigarettes, smokeless tobacco and cigars to youths under age 18. That was the first year states reported Synar findings, and Oklahoma earned a noncompliance rate of 48.3 percent, state records show.

Increased youth-directed tobacco use prevention programs and community-based education directed toward business owners and clerks, along with a number of programs introduced by the Tobacco Settlement Endowment Trust (TSET) after the millennium, helped drive state’s noncompliance rate down. Four years ago, Oklahoma achieved a noncompliance rate of 6.8 percent, the lowest ever recorded for the state, according to ODMH.

Since 2012, Oklahoma’s noncompliance rate has slowly risen. Recent figures released by state officials show the noncompliance rate doubled over four years and now sits at 14.1 percent.

Synar Amendment

In 1992, federal lawmakers passed the Synar Amendment, which set 18 as the minimum age for tobacco purchases in all 50 states. The program was named for late U.S. Rep. Mike Synar, who represented Oklahoma’s second congressional district.

The federal legislation required states to monitor and document the rate of tobacco sales to minors. States are required to maintain a noncompliance rate below 20 percent each year or they lose federal dollars tied to substance abuse prevention and treatment services. Nationally, the noncompliance rate was 40.1 percent in 1996. The most recent national data, as reported by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, shows the 2013 noncompliance rate at 9.6 percent.

Federal officials tout the success of the Synar report, which was intended to prevent youth use of tobacco products. According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 1995, 38.7 percent of student smokers under age 18 obtained their own cigarettes through purchases at stores or gas stations. That same survey found the percentage had dropped to 14 percent in 2011.

Federal funding

Annually, ABLE agents make hundreds of compliance checks through a partnership with fellow state agency ODMH. This year’s results are a concern for a number of reasons, including tobacco’s link to unhealthy outcomes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports one in three cancer deaths could be avoided if no one smoked cigarettes. Additionally, smokeless tobacco contributes to diagnoses of oral, esophageal and pancreatic cancers.

“The most effective way to stop future problems caused by tobacco use is to prevent it from ever occurring in the first place,” Terri White, ODMH commissioner, said in a media release.

That’s why White and others find it troubling to see the state’s noncompliance rate rising.

“Store owners who ignore compliance requirements are putting their own profits ahead of our children’s health,” White said. “The fact that so many retailers didn’t sell these products to minors suggests there is no excuse for the others to continue breaking the law.”

If Oklahoma’s noncompliance rate continues to increase, millions of federal dollars pumped into treatment for Oklahomans with mental health and substance abuse disorders could be in jeopardy, said Jeff Dismukes, ODMH communications officer.

Most recently, Oklahoma was awarded $17.1 million in a substance abuse block grant, he said.

“We’ve talked frequently and it’s been well publicized; [ODMH] does not have enough resources to meet treatment demand in the state,” Dismukes said. “The potential loss of any treatment dollars would be devastating.”

The department estimates six of every 10 Oklahoma adults do not receive needed mental health and substance abuse treatment.

Front lines

There was a common theme among the questions Tanya Henson heard when leading Students Working Against Tobacco (SWAT) for four years in Oklahoma County. Often, SWAT teens asked about addiction to tobacco products. The program works to equip preteens and teenagers to revolt against tobacco.

“‘If this is so bad and costs so much money, why do people continue to do it?’” Henson asked, stating a common question she heard among local SWAT participants. “They didn’t understand addiction and why it can be so hard for people to stop using tobacco products.”

A prevention specialist at Oklahoma City’s Eagle Ridge Institute, a nonprofit providing substance abuse prevention and treatment programs and youth mentoring, Henson explained the organization’s goal is to prevent youth from ever trying tobacco products and other dangerous substances. Through Eagle Wings, elementary and middle school students hear about the effects of tobacco but also discuss tobacco companies’ advertising, which is often geared toward minors.

According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, the tobacco industry pumps $172.8 million worth of advertising into Oklahoma each year. Currently, 27,300 Sooner State high school students smoke and an estimated 3,300 minors a year become daily smokers.

“We talk about the advertising, which targets youth to get them hooked to their products and become lifelong customers,” Henson said. “When youth are aware the message by the tobacco companies is specific to them — for the purpose of getting their money for a lifetime — it is impactful.”

Henson reviewed this year’s Synar report and interpreted the results two ways. Tobacco prevention efforts must increase to reach youth, and more education efforts are needed to inform business owners and clerks of the laws and penalties.

In Oklahoma, it is unlawful to sell cigarettes, vapor products, cigarette rolling papers, cigars, bidis, snuff, chewing tobacco and any other tobacco product to individuals under the age of 18. Under state law, the ABLE commission requires storeowners to post signs reading, “It’s the law. We do not sell tobacco products to persons under the age of 18.”

Retailers are required to repeat the laws to employees, who must sign a statement stating they understand the law and promise to abide.

Violators face fines of $25 to $200 and possible jail time for the misdemeanor offense. Unpaid fines can result in a revoked tobacco license.

“It is important to educate the retailers about selling tobacco to minors,” Henson said. “As Commissioner Terri White points out, some retailers are putting profit before health. We want to make sure the retailers realize sales are monitored and there are consequences in place. But we have to stay on message with our youth. We have to discuss tobacco prevention, tobacco’s effects and what a lifelong addiction can look like.”

Print headline: Smoke rising, The number of Oklahoma minors buying tobacco products continues to climb.

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