Friday, May 21, 2010

Switchblades and brass knuckles help sell cigarettes

Sixteen-year-old kid walks into a convenience store, grabs a 12-ounce can of Dr. Pepper, a bag of Doritos and walks up to the counter. “Pack of Marlboros, please.” The clerk scans the soda, bag of chips, and the cigarettes. “That’s $7.28.” Kid hands the clerk four bills, collects his change and exits the store.

A similar but more eye-popping story unfolds in the City of Watsonville. A storeowner willingly sells switchblade knives and brass knuckles at his chain of discount cigarette stores, in a city plagued by gang violence. Parents shudder at the thought of kids cruising their neighborhood strip malls buying soda pop, candy, Michael Jackson posters and toy guns over the same counter where gang members buy implements of mayhem.

But without all the gang hardware, the scenes aren’t really different. They play out time and again in this and many other communities.

And what is it parents should be most alarmed about? The switchblades? Brass knuckles? Imitation assault rifles? Well ... yes and no.

Store owner Khalil Rahim will surely get his. And I’m bettin’ his stores will soon close for good. But a cigarette smoker is far more likely to die from smoking than from being stabbed or bludgeoned to death by brass knuckles. In fact, smoking kills more people in the United States every year than AIDS, illegal drugs, alcohol, car crashes, suicides and murders combined! (Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

According to a 2008 survey by the Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education Coalition, a group dedicated to reducing tobacco sales to minors, underage youth can expect to be successful buying cigarettes in one out of every six local stores. Any 16-year-old kid who is carded and turned away by a responsible retailer won’t have far to go to find an irresponsible one sympathetic to his wants.

From the point of view of that retailer, the kid’s going to get his cigarettes one way or another, and someone’s going to get that $5. And there’s very little downside. Law enforcement everywhere is understaffed and overburdened with higher-profile crimes. At this time there are no resources available to support the enforcement of laws against selling tobacco to minors. It’s not a priority, unless switchblades are involved.

Tobacco companies know youth are the future of their profits. Creating opportunities to introduce young people to the glamour, excitement — or whatever — of smoking is an ongoing battle. The more governments act to control the sale of tobacco, the more creative are the marketing schemes to sell it. The environment in Rahim’s cigarette shops is one youth could relate to. One with pop culture posters, candy, soda pop, chips, marijuana stuff, imitation guns, forbidden toys ... and forbidden cigarettes. Youth are drawn to the sweet and forbidden.

To address the concern of sales to youth, the coalition proposes an ordinance, successfully implemented in more than 60 California counties and cities, that has dramatically reduced the number of stores willing to sell cigarettes to minors. It requires sellers to be licensed. The Tobacco Retail License fees would provide resources for sting operations — like the ones recently visited upon Mr. Rahim’s stores. Violators would face fines and suspension or revocation of their licenses.

The Santa Cruz County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission unanimously passed a resolution in July urging the board of supervisors to adopt such an ordinance. This month, in support of the coalition’s current effort to recruit a supervisor to sponsor the ordinance, the commission unanimously reaffirmed its July resolution.

It’s time the County of Santa Cruz took action to protect youth from clever tobacco marketers and irresponsible retailers. And in the City of Watsonville, it’s time to put one of them out of business.

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