Saturday, July 15, 2000

Tobacco bought with no ID

Hamilton County stores more lax, teen tests show

By Tim Bonfield
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Sitting behind a foot-high pyramid of cigarette packs, chewing tobacco cans and cigars, a group of 15 Norwood teens reminded the community Friday how easy it is to illegally purchase tobacco.

        Of 133 stores throughout Hamilton County visited by the 15- and 16-year-olds, 37 stores — 28 percent — sold tobacco products even though the teens had no ID and were instructed not to lie if clerks asked their age.

        The rate of illegal sales was well above the Ohio average of 20 percent and slightly worse than last year's local results of 27 percent. This despite the well-publicized results of two previous years' surprise inspections and despite recent rules requiring stores to post signs reminding customers and employees that people must be 18 to buy cigarettes.

        Michael Hof, a freshman at Norwood High School when the buys were made in May and June, said he was surprised how easy it was.

        “My first attempt was at a pharmacy. I got a bottle of tea, a pack of gum and then I asked for a pack of cigarettes. It was no questions asked. I was handed them and told to have a nice day,” Michael said.

        Mary Ann Brickmeyer, a cherub-faced junior at Norwood High, said she was rejected by more than 10 stores but went two-for-two buying cigarettes from vending machines.

        “One restaurant even gave me change for a dollar so I could buy them,” Mary Ann said.

        The stings have been run since 1998 by the Norwood and Hamilton County health departments, paid for by a federal grant. Officials report some improvements flowing from the program but agreed that many stores still aren't taking the law seriously.

        “We'd really like to see this reduced further,” said Donna Laake, Norwood health commissioner. “The state average is 20 percent.”

        The good news: 74 percent of store clerks asked for ID. That's up from 72 percent last year.

        The bad news: 41 percent of stores had posted visible signs about the law. That's down from 55 percent last year.

        “We're hoping store owners will be training their employees to ask for ID,” said Hamilton County chealth commissioner Tim Ingram. “And clearly, vending machines are not being monitored.”

        As in two previous years, no store clerks were cited for selling to underage buyers. But store owners got notice letters about the sales and local police departments were informed of the results. A few police departments, including Norwood and Blue Ash, followed up with warnings, officials said.

        After three years of limited progress, stricter enforcement is being considered for next year, Mr. Ingram said.

        In Ohio, selling tobacco products to a minor is a fourth-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 30 days in jail and a $250 fine. On a second offense, the maximum punishment goes up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.

        Clerks who do the selling face the punishment. However, store owners can also be cited if repeated violations occur, said Lt. Mike Wheeler of the Norwood police department.

        James Rucker, manager of the Shop-N-Go convenience store, 3614 Harrison Ave., Westwood, said his store was among those inspected that did not sell to the tester. The store got a thank-you letter from the county health department, he said.

        “Our policy is to card anybody that looks around 18. They can look 20 and be 14. So you've got to card them all,” Mr. Rucker said.

        He criticized retailers who don't.

        “Those stores probably care more about making money than anything else,” Mr. Rucker said.

        The stores inspected this year were randomly selected from a list of more than 1,400 Hamilton County establishments with tobacco vending licenses. Officials said Friday that several chains of stores have come up repeatedly in the inspections, but they had not completed an analysis to check whether any specific stores had been caught more than once.

        Overall, 15 teens from Norwood, Roger Bacon and Walnut Hills high schools were involved, along with volunteer adult drivers from the Norwood Kiwanis club. The teens went into stores alone and were told not to lie if asked their age, not to argue with salesmen and not to carry identification.

        The teens were required to turn over the cigarettes they bought to health officials, who said Friday that they will be destroyed.


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