Policing Stores Doesn't Curtail Teen Smoking

Study finds kids will get cigarettes elsewhere

(HealthDay is the new name for HealthScoutNews.)

TUESDAY, July 29, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Spending money to force stores to comply with laws banning the sale of cigarettes to minors is a waste of tax dollars.

So says the author of a new study who found that police surveillance in some New York state communities had no effect on whether stores sold cigarettes to children.

Even when stores did a good job of not selling cigarettes to minors, there was only a 1 percent drop in frequent smoking among area high school students.

"If you ask the question, 'Does enforcing store compliance of laws against selling cigarettes to minors make a difference at the end of the day in reducing smoking rates, the answer is, 'not much.' There are a lot cheaper ways to discourage smoking," says study author K. Michael Cummings, an epidemiologist at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo, N.Y.

The research appears in the July issue of Nicotine & Tobacco Research.

Cummings and his colleagues tested the value of police enforcement by monitoring tobacco sales to minors in 12 communities in Erie County during 1994 and 1995. In six of the towns, police hired 14- to 16-year-old minors to go into stores one to four times a year to try to buy cigarettes. There was no enforcement action in the other six communities.

Before the study, in 1992, Cummings had surveyed approximately 4,000 ninth graders from the same towns about their smoking habits. After the store compliance study was completed, he and his colleagues surveyed a second group of approximately 4,700 teens in the communities using the same questionnaire. Both sets of students answered questions regarding tobacco, alcohol and drug use. The questions about smoking included how many days a month they smoked cigarettes; where they bought cigarettes or otherwise obtained them; and how many had smoked 100 cigarettes, which is an accepted measure of a regular smoker.

During the year of the store compliance study, the average number of stores adhering to the law rose from 35 percent to 73 percent. Six of the towns had compliance rates above 80 percent -- the minimal standard for compliance set by federal agencies.

Yet, Cummings says, there were no differences in the compliance rates between stores subject to police surveillance and those that weren't.

Despite the across-the-board increase in store compliance, smoking rates remained substantially the same among teens. Twenty-seven percent of teens reported having smoked 27 of the previous 30 days, and 10 percent reported being regular smokers.

"Shutting off sales at the retail level meant the teens shifted their social sources," Cummings says, getting older friends or even their parents to buy cigarettes.

Stanley Glantz, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, has studied the reasons why teens smoke. He calls Cummings' research "a very nicely done study that adds one more important bit of evidence that this [enforced compliance] is a bad idea and should be abandoned."

"As evidence accumulates that enforcing compliance at the retail level doesn't work, people say, 'We have to try harder.' But it's a failed intervention. No matter what the conditions are, it does not work and should be stopped," he adds.

Cummings reports that in the communities that did achieve an 80 percent or higher compliance rate, there was basically no reduction in the prevalence of smoking among teens. And there was only a 1 percentage point drop -- 9 percent to 8 percent -- in teens who were frequent smokers. In the communities where the store compliance rate was below 80 percent, the prevalence of smoking among the teens during the previous 30 days increased from 26 percent to 30 percent, and the number of frequent smokers increased, from 10 percent to 13 percent.

Cummings says that while these findings appear to reflect a connection between retail availability of cigarettes and smoking, the differences are small and offer only modest support for the idea that increasing compliance to more than 80 percent can have a significant effect on smoking.

He says there are more efficient ways to reduce teen smoking, "like increasing the price of cigarettes, selling them by the carton only, and not to have Mom and Dad smoke."

More information

Visit Tips for Teens: The Truth About Tobacco. The Journal of the American Medical Association explains why teens who do smoke shouldn't.

SOURCES: K. Michael Cummings, Ph.D., M.P.H., Department of Cancer Prevention, Epidemiology, and Biostatistics, Roswell Park Cancer Institute, Buffalo, N.Y.; Stanley Glantz, Ph.D., professor, medicine, University of California, San Francisco; July 2003 Nicotine & Tobacco Research
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