By Debra DeCoster
Tobacco retailers in Kansas City, Kansas, have been put on alert: You can’t sell tobacco products to anyone under the age of 21. Now they know their employees can be brought to court and slapped with a fine if they don’t comply.
Thanks to a $15,000 grant from the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society, KCK Police completed an enforcement operation in November 2017 to determine how many retailers were complying with a “Tobacco 21” ordinance approved in 2015. The enforcement included 288 “stings,” where the Police Department sent 19- and 20-year-old cadets to purchase tobacco products.
The result: 22 percent of 143 businesses sold tobacco products to minors. What’s more, 37 percent of the cashiers who sold the tobacco products were 21 and under. During the attempted purchases, three stores sold to minor police cadets twice.
“Although it’s discouraging to learn that we have so many retailers that didn’t comply with the Tobacco 21 ordinance, we’re very pleased with the Police Department’s work,” said Rebecca Garza with Healthy Communities Wyandotte, who helped the department apply for the grant.
“As the first city in Kansas to adopt the ordinance, we thought it was important to begin tracking how effective it is,” Garza said. “The results from the enforcement operation show us that the vast majority of cashiers and businesses want to comply with the law. But we need to do further enforcement and education to make sure that 100 percent of our community is complying with Tobacco 21.”
The stores whose cashiers did not comply with the ordinance included convenience stores, gas stations and at least one national chain. The cashiers that sold tobacco products to minors will appear in court this year. The stores do not receive a fine when an employee fails to check for identification before a sale.
“Our questions to the stores would be: are the cashiers receiving the proper training they need? Is a cashier who is 17 years old uncomfortable confronting a 19 or 20 year old about checking their ID? But we also found in one store a 72 year old that was selling tobacco to minors,” Garza said.
Smoking is the leading cause of preventable deaths and a significant health problem in Wyandotte County, and health advocates view the Tobacco 21 ordinance as a way to discourage youth from smoking. Studies show that 90 percent of smokers start the habit before they turn 21.
Garza said she plans to follow the court cases of the store employees and hear the judge’s rulings. The Health Department may be contacting the stores that sold to minors and suggest ways they can help with training so that the businesses can help keep cigarettes out of minors’ hands.
“The tobacco industry’s main audiences are people with lower incomes and people of color,” Garza said. “When you have a higher rate of tobacco retailers concentrated in one area, as we do in KCK, you have youth and people more likely to start smoking because they see the constant messaging that tobacco is fun. It is harder to quit because you are constantly being triggered to smoke.”