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.
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.
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