'Sting' Tobacco Sales

Make sure merchants pay a stiff price for flouting law

A child who knows not to touch the stove, but does it anyway and doesn't get burned, may do it again. Similarly, merchants who don't get burned for selling cigarettes to minors because nobody is watching are likely to keep doing it. After all, they get positive reinforcement for their crime - profits.

America won't see an authentic reduction in teen smoking until businesses stop profiting from selling cigarettes illegally to kids.

President Clinton's new initiatives to regulate tobacco advertising and sales through the Food and Drug Administration give important executive endorsement to the effort to reduce teen smoking. A public health problem this pervasive, caused by an industry so powerful, has no hope of solution unless there is a serious commitment from the president.

Strong forces have emerged to confuse the public, however, and their aim is to make people think the problem is being solved when it really isn't. Politicians who are embracing the issue of teen smoking and illegal cigarette sales are being taken in by tobacco industry efforts to emphasize education programs over enforcement programs that test whether merchants are complying with the law.

Rather than supporting merchant sting operations - where teens working with the police are sent into stores to try to buy cigarettes - tobacco interests have developed slick schemes with fancy signs and buttons carrying antismoking messages. All this looks attractive at press conferences, but it has little substance. More important, it yields few results.

Politicians are endorsing these approaches because they will not upset business owners, who can claim they did something - when in fact their "something" did nothing. The real solution to the problem of teen smoking is to build in consequences for businesses that sell cigarettes to kids illegally.

Over the past eight years, my research team at DePaul University has demonstrated that sting operations significantly decrease cigarette sales to minors. When merchants know that random stings will occur in their stores at least three times a year, the short-term profits they gain from selling cigarettes to kids are overshadowed by the prospect of fines and loss of their tobacco license. Successful results have been duplicated in diverse communities from inner-city Chicago to various suburban towns. This program can work anywhere, as long as local governments are serious about enforcement.

Making cigarettes harder for teens to get has proven to be a successful strategy to reduce actual rates of teen smoking. Long-term data from Woodridge, Ill., a suburb of Chicago that started a merchant sting program several years ago, showed that its high school students were half as likely to be regular smokers than teens of the same age in towns that had not limited cigarette sales. These results came at a time, 1991 to 1994, when smoking among eighth-graders was increasing nationally by 30 percent.

This kind of result will never be produced by the insincere anti-smoking campaigns being pushed by tobacco interests and by the retail businesses profiting from youth cigarette sales.

If all stores are regularly faced with strong enforcement, the practice of selling tobacco products to youngsters will significantly decrease. This, in turn, can bring about a dramatic reduction in teen smoking. Do we have the commitment to make the tough choices to put our resources into the only strategy that has consistently demonstrated its effectiveness?

The question is not one of finances. These programs pay for themselves through fines and license fees. The question is whether community leaders are willing to hold merchants accountable. President Clinton's program is a small step in the right direction.

*Leonard Jason is a professor of psychology at DePaul University in Chicago.

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