Pick Another Fight Mr. Dunning, Teen Smoking is Certainly Worthy of Our Efforts

It all began on June 6, 2009, Davis Enterprise Columnist Bob Dunning pulled on a small item about a program in Yolo County that targets teen smoking.  His complaint was that the county was spending resources trying to crack down on vendors selling youths cigarettes.

After Mr. Dunning has decided to write on this particular topic a number of times and has seen that most people are not sympathetic to his arguments, perhaps he sees the writing on the wall.  For my part, I figured it was time to weigh in on this issue.  I actually have mixed feelings on it, but think if the program works, it’s probably well-worth the money.  The question is whether the program works and like most things, I do not think we are testing it.

Bob Dunning on June 6 writes:

It was a small item, really, running in the ‘Briefly’ section along the left-hand margin of Page A3 one day last week. I would have missed it had not a kind reader pointed it out to me.

‘Clerk cited for sale of tobacco to minor,’ said the straightforward and accurate headline above a short piece that began ‘Yolo County district attorney’s investigators cited a Davis gas station clerk earlier this month on suspicion of selling tobacco to a minor.’

The story went on to note that ‘the arrest occurred during an undercover sting targeting tobacco-selling establishments in the city of Davis. Underage decoys, supervised by peace officers, would enter the businesses and attempt to buy tobacco.’

‘At 11:45 a.m., a 16-year-old decoy successfully bought a pack of cigarettes at the Chevron station at 4475 Chiles Road in South Davis, even though the teen showed the clerk an ID card that showed he or she would not turn 18 until 2010,’ the story went on.

‘The unidentified employee was cited and faces up to a $200 fine if convicted, while the store could lose its ability to sell tobacco products for up to 10 days.’

In this particular story, a 16-year-old decoy was able to successfully purchase a pack of cigarettes from a Chevron station in South Davis.  Now the employee who sold him the cigarettes faces a $200 fine while the store can have its ability to sell tobacco products for up to 10 days.

Mr. Dunning thinks it is a ridiculous waste of government resources.

Here’s how the program works, in 2007 the city of Davis passed a Tobacco Retail License requirement whereby each vendor has to renew their license each year and pay $344 to Yolo County.  That money is then used by the Yolo County District Attorney’s office in part to fund a program that seeks to enforce the laws against the sale of cigarettes to minors.  The DA’s office runs sting operations through out the year to test for compliance of vendors.

Of 32 sites, in the previous period, 2007-2008 there were only two violations.  Each site was visited twice during the year.Both sites that violated the ordinance had their licenses revoked for 10 days.

So what is Mr. Dunning up in arms about?  Apparently he thinks this is  waste of money.

He writes:

I knew this sort of sting went on for underage alcohol sales and sometimes for prostitution, but I didn’t realize underage tobacco sales were on anyone’s radar, especially in these times when government resources are being stretched to the breaking point.

Government resources are being stretched to the breaking point, but the program was implemented in 2007 when times were relatively good.  He’s correct they would probably not be enacted today.  We would have to look at the list of list of cuts for the county to see if they will discontinue the program.  For all of his huff, Mr. Dunning never really looks into that question.

Dunning’s confederate, Tim also has to chime in:

All of which caused my friend Tim to fire off a guided missive that says ‘It is reported every day that the country, the state of California, the county of Yolo and the city of Davis are in a financial crisis. The unemployment rate in our state exceeds 10 percent. So what are our esteemed government entities doing? They are conducting sting operations on individuals who are trying to make a living. The Chevron employee is probably not making more than $10 an hour.’

Given that the governor plans to soon release onto our streets thousands and thousands of prisoners whose crimes are far worse than selling cigarettes to a 16-year-old, this does seem like a strange allocation of resources, even if the story does note that ‘the sting was funded by licensing fees collected from tobacco-selling businesses in the city of Davis.’

Tim points out that, sadly, ‘a $200 fine amounts to the loss of three days of wages’ for an employee who almost certainly lives paycheck to paycheck.

I certainly question much of what the District Attorney’s office does, but as these things go, this is pretty innocuous.  The program is funded directly from tobacco permits.  And it aims at the most vulnerable part of the population when it comes to smoking.

The numbers for smoking are staggering still for youths.  1997 was the high water mark when over one in three high school students reported smoking cigarettes in the previous month in a survey by the Center for Disease Control.  They were able to reduce that number to 21.9% in 2003.  Since then, the trend line has been more or less flat.

One of the reasons for the initial decline was it became much harder for young people to purchase cigarettes.

The stakes here are very high.  80% of smokers begin before the age of 18 and 90% before the age of 21.  3900 teens under 18 start smoking each day.  Of those, roughly 1500 will become regular smokers.

Dunning told me:

“I honestly don’t think there’s a single kid who has been discouraged from smoking by this law. Add to that the fact that this is the rebellious age and it may actually be that making it “illegal” makes it more attractive to the very kids who are tempted to smoke in the first place.”

There’s certainly an element of truth to it, but there is also the fact that they were able to cut the rate of teen smoking by 33% simply by making it more difficult for teens to get cigarettes.

We are not talking about a hugely expensive program here.  However, I would favor doing a follow up study to see if the sting operation has reduced the amount of teen smoking in the city of Davis and the county.  If it has not, then perhaps there are better things we can spend our money on.  But if it has stopped just one teen from dying at a young age, it is probably well worth the money and effort.  It is not like we are talking about a massively expensive program.

Regardless of whether or not this program works, I think there are many more pressing issues that Mr. Dunning might want to address in terms of government spending in this community.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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33 thoughts on “Pick Another Fight Mr. Dunning, Teen Smoking is Certainly Worthy of Our Efforts”

  1. Clouded Issue?

    “Regardless of whether or not this program works, I think there are many more pressing issues that Mr. Dunning might want to address in terms of government spending in this community.”

    This topic, while not a pressing issue in terms of expenditure of public funds, did elicit quite a response from the community. Dunning himself expressed surprise at the degree of response and the amount of opposition to his stand on the issue.

    Bob Dunning is a columnist. As a columnist, Mr. Dunning fulfills his journalistic obligation when he discovers and reveals a seemingly mundane topic having such high public interest. The fact that this blog felt the need to also comment, further validates Dunning’s initial writing.

  2. SODAIte

    David
    Is the program really $neutral?
    Just from fees and violations; hard to believe.
    And how can we measure the effect? Where did the 32% decrease come from and how was that measured? Thanks!

  3. David M. Greenwald

    Clouded: That’s a fair point. Although I could probably elicit my largest response ever if I pulled Jonathan Swift and make “A Modest Proposal.” I’m not certain that really illustrates fulfilling my journalistic obligation.

    SODA: It may be revenue positive, all I know is that the money for the program comes exclusively from the tobacco licensing fee and doesn’t take from other funding.

    The CDC does surveys that ask people about smoking and other behaviors. The problem from a local standpoint is surveys cost a lot of money to do well.

  4. Observer

    For once, I agree with Dunning. Does anyone really think that these busts prevent one kid who want to smoke from doing so? Kids today can get marijuana, crack, alcohol, and yes, tobacco with little effort. If the cops have resources, from tobacco licensing fees or elsewhere, to conduct these stupid sting operations, there is room for budget cuts in the police department.

  5. Rich Rifkin

    This story ([url]http://www.buffalonews.com/cityregion/story/701110.html?imw=Y[/url]) came out a few days ago, in case anyone is interested in the latest statistics on smoking. The most interesting bit (to me) is this: [quote]• The prevalence of cigarette smoking among adults in the United States declined from 24.5 percent to 18.5 percent from 1992-93 to 2006-07. [/quote]

  6. JayTee

    I see no problem at all with holding the clerk accountable. He is the one who allowed the sale to go through. Honestly, if you can’t figure out how old someone is by looking at the date of birth on their license, perhaps you shouldn’t be working at a job that requires handling money and making change.

  7. you could guess easily...

    I agree with Bob Dunning on this. Stupid waste of resources. What makes matters worse, the ridiculous fines associated with the sale of alcohol to underage adults (18-20) is ludicrous. These people are adults and law enforcement wastes time and resources in trying to sting over-worked bartenders and waitresses if they took a fake ID? Ridiculous. The fines are 10X what they are for cigarettes. All of this to enforce some religious minorities views on morality… Bob is right.

    PS- Yes I have kids and have zero concern about them making any worse decisions than the ones I made… People will do what they are going to do.

  8. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]It may be revenue positive, all I know is that the money for the program comes exclusively from the tobacco licensing fee and doesn’t take from other funding.[/i]

    You’re more strictly correct about this than your phrasing lets on. Chapter 6-15 of the Yolo County Code was adoped in 2007 as Section 34.06.010 of the city code. Section 6-15.06 of that code says, “All fees shall be used exclusively to find [sic, fund] the regulatory program authorized by this Chapter.”

    Thus, the Tobacco Retailer Permit system can never be revenue positive. It would only be revenue negative if the city or county spent more on monitoring than it gets in fees.

    Now, the legal code could be changed to just add these fees to the general budget. It’s a mistake to attach strings to revenue just for the sake of attaching strings. Certainly at the state level, they’re in trouble because too many strings have been attached to too many funds. But I agree that in the abstract, tobacco compliance is a good use of money; the only question is how much.

    How effective is it? How much is it needed? Quoting national statistics is misleading because California is well ahead of the curve in reducing smoking. In one reference that I found, it is second only to Utah among the 50 states. Still, the absence of cigarettes is one of things that I like about California and Davis. In general, smoking is a huge drain on the economy as well as an enemy of public health. Even if the rate is low locally, one can always do more.

    In an ideal world, the FDA would set a limit on nicotine in cigarettes and push the limit down year by year. After all, nicotine is already banned in food and drinks. If the FDA did that, then a lot of these other steps would be much less important.

  9. Rich Rifkin

    [quote]California is well ahead of the curve in reducing smoking. In one reference that I found, it is second only to Utah among the 50 states. [/quote]California youth have very low rates of smoking: “Among 18-to-29-year-olds, the prevalence was 2.5 times higher in Kentucky (36.2 percent) than in California (14.4 percent).”

  10. Rich Rifkin

    [quote]In an ideal world, the FDA would set a limit on nicotine in cigarettes and push the limit down year by year.[/quote]My understanding is that nicotine, while unhealthy in and of itself and of course the reason tobacco is addictive, is not itself carcinogenic. I’m sure your suggestion to lower nicotine in cigarettes is designed to make smoking less addictive. However, I wonder if that wouldn’t just make smokers smoke more?

    This is what Wikipedia says: “The currently available literature indicates that nicotine, on its own, [u]does not promote the development of cancer in healthy tissue and has no mutagenic properties[/u]. The teratogenic properties of nicotine have not yet been adequately researched, and while the likelihood of birth defects caused by nicotine is believed to be very small or nonexistent, nicotine replacement product manufacturers recommend consultation with a physician before using a nicotine patch or nicotine gum while pregnant or nursing. However, nicotine and the increased cholinergic activity it causes have been shown to impede apoptosis, which is one of the methods by which the body destroys unwanted cells (programmed cell death). Since apoptosis helps to remove mutated or damaged cells that may eventually become cancerous, the inhibitory actions of nicotine may create a more favourable environment for cancer to develop, though this also remains to be proven.”

  11. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]My understanding is that nicotine, while unhealthy in and of itself and of course the reason tobacco is addictive, is not itself carcinogenic. I’m sure your suggestion to lower nicotine in cigarettes is designed to make smoking less addictive. However, I wonder if that wouldn’t just make smokers smoke more?[/i]

    The tobacco companies aren’t spraining their brains on that one. If a nicotine ceiling made people smoke more, they’d be for it. But they’re dead set against it.

    Those who sell nicotine know that people don’t have any fixed quota for nicotine. You’re limited by your time and your budget, or by a desire to quit. Or if it’s a nicotine patch, you’re limited by the instructions and by common sense. Maybe if cigarettes had a huge nicotine wallop, it would make non-acclimated new smokers crawl up the wall and they’d be limited by that. The tobacco companies know all that, they have good control over the nicotine level in their product, and they have put it at the sweet spot. They certainly don’t want it to go lower.

    Yes, nicotine is addictive but not carcinogenic. But addictiveness is an accepted reason for FDA intervention. It’s why no one sells morphine Oreos, it’s why Coca-Cola no longer has cocaine, and it’s why neither Oreos nor Coca-Cola have nicotine. Yes, Coca-Cola has caffeine, but not all drugs are equal in this question; nicotine and cocaine are worse.

  12. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]Do you favor the FDA requiring a lower caffeine punch in coffee?[/i]

    The FDA already sets limits on caffeine in soft drinks and pills. I don’t know whether coffee has too much caffeine or not. What I can say is that it’s a valid public health question, and that the FDA certainly should have the authority to decide a limit.

    I can also say that they shouldn’t set limits just for the sake of setting limits. They should balance the buyer’s freedom against the seller’s integrity.

  13. Robin W

    Nicotine in cigarettes and caffeine in coffee aren’t comparable because coffee is not a dangerous substance (aside from being slightly addictive) while cigarettes are lethal (due to substances in the cigarettes other than nicotine).

    I applaud the PD’s sting operation. I don’t know why vendors in Davis sell cigarettes to children, but they do, all the time. My daughter’s friends have all been smoking since they were 13 or 14 — and purchasing their cigarettes from the vendors in Davis. My daughter smoked for a while around that age, and paid the consequences of school disciplinary actions and court fines for being found in possession of cigarettes. The vendors need to also be “disciplined” to reduce this problem in Davis.

    Yes, teens have a way of getting their hands on alcohol, marijuana and cocaine — but we haven’t abandoned enforcement of the laws pertaining to those substances. Cigarettes are at least as dangerous as those substances. Why wouldn’t we do everything we can to prevent teen smoking?

  14. Logical Thinker

    “Yes, teens have a way of getting their hands on alcohol, marijuana and cocaine — but we haven’t abandoned enforcement of the laws pertaining to those substances. Cigarettes are at least as dangerous as those substances. Why wouldn’t we do everything we can to prevent teen smoking?”

    That is about the most intelligent thing I have read in this entire commentary. Also, do we know whether the DA’s Office is getting other federal or state grant money to do these sting operations? It is my understanding that as part of the settlement with respect to gov’t lawsuits against the tobacco companies, cigarette producers had to give money to the federal and state gov’ts – who in turn use that money for anti-tobacco campaigns and activities. DPD, can you shed some light on this?

  15. Greg Kuperberg

    [i]So, if nicotine is not cancerous, why do snuff/chew tobacco users get mouth cancer?[/i]

    A quote:

    [quote]Chewing tobacco and snuff contain 28 carcinogens (cancer–causing agents). The most harmful carcinogens in smokeless tobacco are the tobacco–specific nitrosamines (TSNAs). They are formed during the growing, curing, fermenting, and aging of tobacco. TSNAs have been detected in some smokeless tobacco products at levels many times higher than levels of other types of nitrosamines that are allowed in foods, such as bacon and beer.

    Other cancer–causing substances in smokeless tobacco include N–nitrosamino acids, volatile N–nitrosamines, benzo(a)pyrene, volatile aldehydes, formaldehyde, acetaldehyde, crotonaldehyde, hydrazine, arsenic, nickel, cadmium, benzopyrene, and polonium–210.[/quote]

    [url]http://www.cancer.gov/cancertopics/factsheet/tobacco/smokeless[/url]

    Even so, the addictiveness of nicotine in chewing tobacco makes a huge difference in both the health consequences and the moral equation. For instance, potato skins have a lot of toxins — potatoes never asked for FDA approval for their evolved pesticides. But potato skins aren’t chemically addictive.

    For teenagers who become addicted to any form of tobacco, it’s truly a few months of bad judgment, a lifetime of regret.

  16. Rich Rifkin

    curious, I looked this up for you on the CDC website ([url]http://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/data_statistics/fact_sheets/smokeless/smokeless_facts/index.htm[/url]): [quote]Smokeless tobacco contains 28 cancer-causing agents (carcinogens). It is a known cause of human cancer, as it increases the risk of developing cancer of the oral cavity. Oral health problems strongly associated with smokeless tobacco use are leukoplakia (a lesion of the soft tissue that consists of a white patch or plaque that cannot be scraped off) and recession of the gums.[/quote] I then linked to the study ([url]http://cancercontrol.cancer.gov/tcrb/monographs/2/m2_3.pdf[/url]) which found 28 carcinogens, and this is what the abstract says: [quote]To date, 28 carcinogens have been identified in smokeless tobacco. In addition to certain volatile aldehydes, traces of benzo[a]pyrene, certain lactones, urethan, hydrazine, metals, polonium-210, and uranium-235 and -238 can be found in ST. However, the major contributors to the carcinogenicity of chewing tobacco and of snuff are the N-nitrosamines, especially the tobacco-specific N-nitrosamines. The latter are formed from the Nicotiana alkaloids during tobacco processing. In the United States, daily exposure to carcinogenic nitrosamines for snuff users is at least 250 times higher than for those who do not use tobacco. Although there has been a decline in the concentrations of nitrosamines in U.S. and Swedish ST products during the past decade, this trend is not evident for all snuff brands. One new snuff brand contains extremely high concentrations of carcinogenic nitrosamines. This observation adds to the urgency of the recommendation of the World Health Organization to regulate harmful substances in chewing tobacco and snuff. Similarly, flavorants and additives to tobacco should be controlled.[/quote]

  17. Don Shor

    “…each vendor has to renew their license each year and pay $344 to Yolo County. That money is then used by the Yolo County District Attorney’s office…
    Of 32 sites, in the previous period, 2007-2008 there were only two violations. Each site was visited twice during the year.”

    Local businesses paid $11,000 to the county for enforcement, and there were only two violations? This doesn’t sound like a very worthwhile expense to me. Perhaps we should stop charging businesses for projects like this. Businesses have enough costs as it is.

  18. earoberts

    “Local businesses paid $11,000 to the county for enforcement, and there were only two violations? This doesn’t sound like a very worthwhile expense to me. Perhaps we should stop charging businesses for projects like this. Businesses have enough costs as it is.”

    Don, I can see where you are coming from. But I honestly don’t believe the only money for these sting operations is coming from the businesses. There was lawsuit money given to the states and federal gov’t by the tobacco companies, to be used for campaigns against teen smoking. I would almost bet on it that the DA’s office or whoever is doing the sting operations is getting state and federal funding for this.

  19. To Don Shor

    “Local businesses paid $11,000 to the county for enforcement, and there were only two violations?”

    Perhaps because they know they can be tested at any time?

  20. To Don Shor

    In fact, I’d argue if they found a high rate of violations, it might be more problematic because they’ve done this for three years now and if they were still getting a high rate of violators, you could argue the program is not working. After all, if they test each place twice, almost by chance alone you are missing lots of potential violations if the number were higher.

  21. earoberts

    “In fact, I’d argue if they found a high rate of violations, it might be more problematic because they’ve done this for three years now and if they were still getting a high rate of violators, you could argue the program is not working.”

    That is a really good point!

  22. Don Shor

    I’m somewhat open-minded on this. I just think that $344 is a lot for a small business to pay, especially with as low a violation rate as they seem to have found from the outset. Gas stations vary, but convenience stores tend to be locally owned, gross sales aren’t that high, and they aren’t as profitable as most people think.

    The rate of teen smoking has been declining for years. It is true that access to cigarettes has diminished and might be a factor, but what has really changed is attitudes about smoking. I think advertising is more effective than sting operations.
    Programs like this should have sunset provisions so their efficacy can be assessed (maybe they do; I don’t know).

  23. Rich Rifkin

    [quote]The rate of teen smoking has been declining for years. It is true that access to cigarettes has diminished and might be a factor, but what has really changed is attitudes about smoking. [/quote]I think the price of cigarettes plays a role, too. I’ve never smoked, but I know when I was a teenager, cigarettes were a lot cheaper (in inflation adjusted dollars).

    This site ([url]http://www.taxfoundation.org/files/sr145.pdf[/url]) gives the historic taxes on a pack of cigarettes in California:

    July 1, 1959 – July 31, 1967 [b]3 cents[/b]
    August 1, 1967 – September 30, 1967 [b]7 cents[/b]
    October 1, 1967 – December 31, 1988 [b]10 cents[/b]
    January 1, 1989 – December 31, 1993 [b]35 cents[/b]
    January 1, 1994 – December 31, 1998 [b]37 cents[/b]
    January 1, 1999 – December 31, 2006 [b]87 cents[/b]
    January 1, 2007 – today [b]$3.47[/b]

    I read this in the news a few weeks ago: “California lawmakers are again considering a proposal to raise tobacco taxes, weighing an increase of $1.50 per pack.”

  24. All Frosting, No Cake

    If smoking is so bad, then BAN IT!!! With all of the serious problems we are facing today (deficits, pandemics, etc) this is way down on the list. Can’t we just declare victory and move on?

  25. Anon

    “I think the price of cigarettes plays a role, too. I’ve never smoked, but I know when I was a teenager, cigarettes were a lot cheaper (in inflation adjusted dollars).”

    I very much doubt it. Kids these days buy CDs at $25 a pop, purchase laptops ($700), have cell phones ($50 per month minimum), Ipods ($250). $3.50 for a pack of cigarettes is chump change to a teen.

    I suspect reasons teen cigarette smoking is down are:
    1) Movies and television actors don’t smoke much – at one time smoking on big or little screen was prolific, then forbidden altogether. Magazines don’t feature cigarette adds. This is key. Youngsters mimic what appears adult and glamorous. Cigarette advertising should be strictly forbidden in all media forms. By the way, I met Tom Selleck in person at a car show one time, in my younger days, when he was the Marlboro Man! Those Marlboro ads were enthralling, sexy, inviting.
    2) There has been a crackdown of making sure vendors do not sell cigarettes to teens. Tobacco companies were caught peddling free cigarettes at NASCAR races, until they got caught by law enforcement. There is much better enforcement of the laws agaist selling tobacco products to teens.
    3) Education of the dangers of smoking is much more prolific than it was, and needs to continue unabated. Public service adds that show victims of cigarette smoking who are dying of lung cancer sends a very powerful message. Have you seen them? They are quite good.
    4) Local anti-smoking ordinances have discouraged smoking, such as the one in Davis. Forbidding smoking inside buildings works very well. Essentially smoking is not seen as particularly socially acceptable anymore. It is more or less condemned as hurting everyone (second hand smoke).

  26. earoberts

    Somewhere Bob Dunning is saying ” No Thankyou” for all this bad publicity. I suspect the Enterprise may not appreciate it either, considering they are on the edge of insolvency.

  27. Brian K

    Re: Bob Dunning laughing about the naive Davis Vanguard blogger providing publicity: We learn in Journalism 101 that any publicity is good publicity…it increases word-of-mouth, and readership, after which individuals draw their own conclusions about the “bad” content. The Davis Enterprise very much craves readers these days. Especially readers who cut and paste its content on blogs and then comment on it. The more hits the better.

  28. earoberts

    “The Davis Enterprise very much craves readers these days. Especially readers who cut and paste its content on blogs and then comment on it. The more hits the better.”

    I would say it is the Davis Enterprise that is cutting and pasting blog articles onto its own front page. Look at the Katehi story – straight from DPD’s blog.

  29. Sandy

    Bob Dunning and his preachy columns are one of the reasons I stopped subscribing to the Enterprise shortly after I moved her. His opinions do not merit payment, any more than anyone else’s. I read some relocation forums online from time to time, and it’s amazing the vitriol he elicits from people who do not like this town. He is often held up as one of the reasons. Why anyone would get so upset by a small town newspaper columnist is beyond me, but they do.

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