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Smoke Screen Helps Minors Buy Cigarettes

Stores less likely to verify age if you flash an ID, study says

WEDNESDAY, May 9 (HealthScout) -- Fake identification is an illicit rite of passage for many teenagers. But when it comes to buying cigarettes, it may not even be necessary, new research shows.

A study of California stores California found that clerks frequently fail to verify the date on an ID, allowing underage youth to buy cigarettes. The result, experts say, is that cigarette laws forbidding the sale of tobacco to minors are often woefully porous.

The study "shows that the problem of youth access [to tobacco] might be more serious than many people think," says Eric Lindblom, a policy analyst at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an antismoking group. "It also suggests that cigarette companies that say retailers can police themselves are even more wrong than we already knew they were."

Despite increasingly stiffened laws to discourage retailers from selling tobacco to minors, and efforts by retailers to encourage clerks to ask for ID, adolescents still buy a billion packs of cigarettes each year, the same as they did more than a decade ago. That implies store clerks are either ignoring the statutes or being duped by teens, or both.

In the latest study, San Diego State University psychologists Hope Landrine and Elizabeth Klonoff and their colleagues recruited a dozen California teens between the ages of 15 and 17 and asked them to try to buy a pack of Marlboros at 227 small stores.

The experiment had three phases, two in which the teens merely asked to buy cigarettes and one in which they offered ID, in the form of a driver's license or state card, but flashed it only briefly to fool clerks.

Minors were asked their age in only 12 percent of the attempted purchases, and were asked for ID in roughly 56 percent of the attempts.

When kids didn't show ID their success rates were low, ranging between 1.4 percent for the 15-year-olds and about 18 percent for the 17-year-olds. Those numbers are within federal standards, issued in the mid-1990s, which ordered states to reduce sales of tobacco products to minors to 20 percent of attempts. States that fail to comply with the rule can lose grants for alcohol and drug abuse programs.

With the help of ID, however, the odds of scoring smokes jumped almost fourfold, the researchers say. However, the clerks were able to spot some of the younger would-be buyers. Although the overall success rates were higher, 15-year-olds were 3.5 and 10 times less likely than 16- and 17-year-olds, respectively, to succeed with the purchases.

Results of the study appear in the May 9 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

One explanation for why brandishing identification made it easier to buy cigarettes is that "the clerks can't do the math" on the cards, says Klonoff. Another involves gender: Male retailers are more likely than their female counterparts to sell to minors and also to smoke themselves, she says.

Finally, she says, stores that want to sell to minors will sell to minors, regardless of carding laws. "If they're going to sell, they just ignore what they see in front of them. We have anecdotal reports of clerks saying to kids, 'Just hand me anything so the security camera can see that I asked for something,'" she says.

Mike Mason, a spokesman for the National Association of Convenience Stores, an Alexandria, Va., group that represents 2,300 retailers, says the industry "is committed to deterring every attempt by minors to buy tobacco."

The association helped found the "We Card" program, with the help of the tobacco industry, to educate retailers about verifying the age of people trying to buy cigarettes. Mason cites figures showing that stores that participate in "We Card" are 12 times more likely to ask for ID than those who don't take part. Cigarettes and other tobacco products account for approximately one third of sales for the group's members, second only to gasoline, says Mason.

But "We Card" may not be as effective as other initiatives to prevent adolescents from buying cigarettes. Klonoff says recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that stores that display "We Card" signs are more likely to sell cigarettes to minors than those that display anti-smoking materials distributed by the state of California.

What To Do

For more on how to quit smoking, check out the Surgeon General's office.

For more on efforts to stop youth smoking, try the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

Read other HealthScout articles about youth and smoking.

SOURCES: Interviews with Elizabeth Klonoff, Ph.D., professor of psychology, San Diego State University; Eric Lindblom, manager for policy research, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, Washington, D.C.; Mike Mason, media relations manager, National Association of Convenience Stores, Alexandria, Va.; May 9, 2001 Journal of the American Medical Association
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