KINGMAN – Tobacco products have been known to snare users at an early age resulting in lifelong addictions, and the Arizona Attorney General’s Office says tobacco retailers are the first line of defense in combatting nicotine’s hold on youth. To that end, the state is doing its part to ensure businesses are complying with federal and state tobacco laws through its Counter Strike Program.
Counter Strike uses youth volunteers, those under the legal-tobacco purchasing age of 18, to make sure Arizona businesses aren’t selling tobacco products to those too young to legally purchase them. Volunteers come from a variety of sources including county health departments, high schools and youth involved in local government or community efforts.
“All these kids are students from the community who are interested in their community,” said Erika Mansur of the AG’s office.
Volunteers pose as customers attempting to purchase tobacco products from a business. They use an ID that shows their real date of birth, and aren’t permitted to lie or mislead the business. Mansur noted there are common misconceptions about the program such as volunteers being made up to look older, or that the AG’s office uses paid actors. Neither is true.
“We want the businesses to be compliant, that’s our goal,” Mansur said. “We’re not trying to trick anybody.”
If the volunteer is carded, meaning the business requires them to show identification, and a tobacco purchase does not move forward, the business receives a letter from the AG’s office congratulating them for following the law. However, if the business does sell tobacco to a minor, a law enforcement officer present for the purchase begins corrective actions for the sale, which Arizona considers a petty offense.
More often than not, in lieu of monetary fines that range from $300 to $1,000, businesses busted selling tobacco products to minors opt to take part in a diversion program geared toward holding businesses accountable and educating them on tobacco laws.
“The statistics seem to bear out that offering that program has resulted in less recidivism, so people are now complying at greater rates,” said Douglas Lau, chief of the state attorney general’s tobacco enforcement unit.
The program in previous years has seen fail rates, the frequency that businesses sell tobacco to minors, as high as 17 percent. However, that rate dropped to about 13 percent in 2016 and 11.6 percent in 2017. Fiscal Year 2018 yielded the lowest fail rate ever with only 9.8 percent of businesses failing inspections. More than 30,000 inspections have been conducted since the program started in 2002.
“If they continue to violate the law, they might be given the financial penalty,” Mansur explained. “But we’ve been having success with the diversion program.”
She added that businesses should keep certain things in mind when selling tobacco, especially when that sale could be to a minor. There are consequences for selling tobacco to minors, she said, adding that no business wants to be known as one that breaks the law and sells nicotine products to those individuals. She also noted tobacco can be a lifelong addiction, which can have immense costs to the state.
“I would tell them it’s not worth it,” Mansur said of advice she would give businesses tempted to make a few extra dollars off of minors.