Enforcement of Retail Sales of Tobacco

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Retail stores represent the main interface between tobacco producers and customers. Other sources include home-grown and black market cigarettes that have been smuggled to avoid taxes. Governments want to regulate the distribution of tobacco, similar to other products intended for consumption such as food and alcohol. Governments are principally interested in collecting revenues and ensuring product safety. Most product safety concerns at point of purchase have focused on preventing sales of tobacco to young people.

Attitudes about tobacco are shaped at an early age. Roughly 40 percent of smokers begin experimenting prior to becoming a teenager, and 80 percent adopt the habit during their teenage years. One in three of those who begin smoking during this period eventually die of smoking-related causes. Regardless of future health problems, teenagers represent the market for replacing smokers who quit or die. It is a market that has been courted by the tobacco industry and by health groups.

Legislation has primarily been viewed as a tool to control supply rather than demand. During the early twentieth century, the temperance movement lobbied for legislation to prevent tobacco from reaching young people. By 1920, Virginia and Rhode Island were the only states that lacked age restrictions. Canada had federal and provincial legislation that restricted sales of tobacco to minors, as well as possession by minors. These laws were rarely enforced, and most were ignored or repealed. Such legislation returned to prominence, however, as evidence mounted concerning patterns of smoking and the consequences of smoking to health. Advocacy groups began to raise the issue by sending minors into stores to purchase tobacco. The initial legal remedies consisted of warnings or minor penalties, but increased media coverage added the burden of social concern and corporate disgrace. In one case, the Provincial Court of Ontario levied a $25 fine after University of Toronto students brought charges against the Canadian pharmacy chain, Shoppers Drug Mart, a subsidiary of Imasco Ltd., which also owns Imperial Tobacco, Canada's largest tobacco company. The retailer responded with an in-house program to train employees about sales of tobacco to underage customers.

During the 1980s researchers began to publish results of studies that illustrated how young people could easily purchase tobacco products. They found that early experimental smoking often involved cigarettes obtained from parents or friends, but that retail stores quickly became the main source of tobacco. The researchers revealed the ineffectiveness of both voluntary programs sponsored by the tobacco industry and isolated educational programs provided by health agencies. A small number of surveys solicited input from tobacco retailers. In one survey, over 90 percent of the merchants surveyed stated that they thought they should not be able to sell cigarettes to underage youths. The merchants wanted government legislation that set rules for a "level playing field" applicable to all tobacco outlets. Building upon diffusion theory, the authors of the survey categorized retailers into three groups, using the concept of early, middle, and late adopters to describe sales practices. Early adopters were the first retailers not to sell tobacco products to minors. It was hypothesized that the first two groups were amenable to educational programs, but enforcement would be necessary to help support the middle adopters and change the minority who persisted in selling tobacco to minors. The need for a combination of education and enforcement has been confirmed by several studies.

Numerous agencies have demonstrated success at working with tobacco retailers, and standard undercover procedures are evolving to assess the behaviors of vendors. These measures have variously been called stings, compliance checks, Synar surveys, decoy purchases, or test shopping. In such operations, minors are selected and verified to look their age. The supervised minors are then sent into stores where they attempt to purchase a tobacco product. For operations sponsored by universities, the minors are usually truthful about their age, but for purposes of enforcement the protocol may include slight deception. It is the vendor's responsibility to ask for photo identification. Cashiers and business owners share responsibility for tobacco transactions; and one or both may be charged for an infraction. Enforcement agents include the police, inspectors from health agencies, or liquor control inspectors. Penalties for illegal sales escalate from warnings and a range of monetary fines to loss of license. Losing the right to sell tobacco provides an effective deterrent for repeat offenders or when high profits smother the relative impact of fines.

In response to scientific evidence and public opinion, by the end of the twentieth century most of the government jurisdictions in North America had rewritten their laws restricting sales of tobacco to minors. They were faced with sobering statistics showing that during the last decade of the century there was a steady increase in the proportion of teenagers using tobacco. Every day approximately 7,000 North American minors experimented with tobacco, and 3,500 became daily smokers. While vigilance and enforcement were being stepped up for traditional retail outlets, young people were finding new types and sources of tobacco. The market introduced imported cigarettes, such as "bidis," with the allure of a slim profile, colorful wrappers, and fruit flavors, and the Internet provided a faceless source of mail-order tobacco. These new elements present additional challenges in the effort to reduce teenage smoking.

Ronald A. Dovell

(see also: Enabling Factors; Smoking Behavior; Smoking Cessation; Tobacco Control; Tobacco Sales to Youth, Regulation of )


Dovell, R. A.; Mowat, D. L.; Dorland, J.; and Lam, M. (1998). "Tobacco Access to Youth: Beliefs and Attitudes of Retailers." Canadian Journal of Public Health 89(1):1721.