Researchers determined that more than half of retail stores may be inadvertently, and illegally, selling cigarettes to underage buyers, according to the results published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Federal estimates are based on single visits to stores, the researchers note. The new study was based on six visits per store by teens too young to purchase cigarettes. Sometimes the teenage buyers were turned away, but sometimes a clerk at a store that refused one teen would allow another to purchase cigarettes.
“Policy makers need to understand that the way they are monitoring illegal sales from retail stores is pretty seriously flawed,” said the study’s lead author, Arnold Levinson, an associate professor of community and behavioral health at the Colorado School of Public Health in Aurora.
With the government underestimating illegal sales, it’s unlikely there will be stricter enforcement, Levinson added.
For the new study, Levinson and his colleagues rounded up 17 clean-cut teens between the ages of 15 and 16. The teens were sent into 201 convenience stores, liquor stores, groceries, gas stations and other tobacco retailers in Colorado’s Jefferson County to try to purchase cigarettes. The teens were told it was up to them whether to present an ID if asked for one. Most did. But in many cases the clerks gave the ID only a cursory glance and then handed over the cigarettes.
The researchers determined that 55 percent of retailers sold cigarettes during at least one of the six visits by the underage study volunteers. And 53 out of the 201 stores, or just over 24 percent, sold to the minor volunteers at least twice, while 24 out of 201, or about 12 percent sold to the volunteers three or more times.
Levinson points out that there is a move to raise the age at which tobacco can be purchased nationwide to 21. “That would make a huge difference,” he said. “But it would require consistent firm enforcement, which brings us back to this article. Which shows we’re not doing very well. So if we increase the age we’ve got to increase the monitoring and enforcement.”