Putting out tobacco, e-cigarette sales to youth

A recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the percentage of teens using e-cigarettes tripled from 2013 to 2014.

While that is a staggering statistic, it also begs an even bigger question: how are teens getting them in the first place?

It turns out it might not be as difficult as it may seem.

Access to e-cigarettes ranges anywhere from local gas stations to online stores, and North County San Diego is not immune to seeing a high number of outlets.

A recent survey conducted by the Vista Community Clinic Tobacco Control Program observed 136 Escondido businesses selling e-cigarettes and tobacco products. Among them, 65 percent sold at least one type of e-cigarette. While tobacco shops and liquor stores topped the list of type of business selling e-cigarettes, gas stations (91 percent) and convenience stores (73 percent) were not far behind.

In addition, e-cigarettes are not limited to being sold behind the counter. Nearly 25 percent of observed Escondido retailers placed e-cigarettes on the check-out counter, and an additional 6 percent also placed the products on the sales floor or by soda, slushies or candy.

Although California is one of 42 states that prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, easy access remains a major problem. The CDC reports about two million teens nationwide used e-cigarettes in 2014, including 13.4 percent of high school students and 3.9 percent of middle school kids.

According to the Center for Tobacco Policy and Organizing, 34,000 youth start smoking in California each year, and many communities have taken initiative to combat this growing issue.

To do so, more than 100 cities and counties in California have adopted a local tobacco retail licensing (TRL) ordinance. Currently, El Cajon, Solana Beach, the city of San Diego and Vista have a TRL ordinance in place.

Under a local TRL ordinance, the city or county government requires all businesses that sell tobacco products to obtain a license from the government in exchange for the privilege of selling these products to consumers — and doing so responsibly. This includes checking for proper, valid identification and posting age-of-sale warning signs.

Obtaining a TRL also requires retailers to pay a permit fee to the city. Revenues generated from these licensing fees are dedicated to law enforcement programs that focus on protecting youth from illegal tobacco sales through regular compliance checks and monitoring activities.

Of course, not all local tobacco retailers illegally sell e-cigarettes or tobacco products to minors, but a TRL ordinance requires all retailers to act responsibly and levels the playing field for all retailers.

A survey of 31 municipalities conducted by The Center for Tobacco Policy and Organizing found that local tobacco retailer licensing is extremely effective at reducing illegal sales to underage youth. Municipalities that have implemented and enforced a strong TRL ordinance found that the rates of illegal sales to minors decreased, often significantly, in all communities surveyed.

Not only does a TRL ordinance work in decreasing the rates of illegal sales to minors, but it also creates a safer retail environment for youth. And that’s something all tobacco retailers can stand behind.

Dana Stevens is the executive director for Communities Against Substance Abuse (CASA), chairperson of the Palomar Health Communities Coalition on Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drug Prevention and an Escondido resident.

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