Tobacco compliance check rates not as high as for alcohol, but local officials still pleasedFARGO – When it comes to turning down minors who are trying to buy tobacco, being better than average isn’t good enough for manager Nikki Dauk.
FARGO – When it comes to turning down minors who are trying to buy tobacco, being better than average isn’t good enough for manager Nikki Dauk.
The family business, West Acres All-Stop Service Center, where Dauk has worked since she was 16, has failed four of its 46 tobacco compliance checks since 1996, for a compliance rate of 91.3 percent – almost 2 percent higher than the overall average among Fargo retailers.
Still, for Dauk, it burns.
“It kills me, the four (failures), to be honest,” she said. “We do take it very seriously. I don’t like to think that children can buy tobacco.”
Overall, public health officials say retailers in Cass and Clay counties are doing a good job of carding young people trying to buy cigarettes and chew.
As The Forum reported two weeks ago, the overall success rates for alcohol compliance checks were between 90 and 95 percent in Fargo, Moorhead, West Fargo and Cass and Clay counties from 2004 to 2011.
Tobacco compliance rates are slightly lower: 89.4 percent in Fargo from 1996 to 2011 and 88.2 percent in Clay County, including Moorhead, from 2003 to 2011. Only the past three years of data was readily available from West Fargo, showing a 92.1 percent compliance rate, while Cass County had two years of data available.
Holly Scott, a community health educator who oversees tobacco compliance checks for Fargo Cass Public Health, said other factors such as no-smoking ordinances and tobacco-free policies in schools make it difficult to pinpoint the effects of compliance checks on youth smoking rates.
But the statewide Youth Risk Behavior Survey, conducted every two years, may shed some light on the subject.
Last year’s survey results for the Fargo area showed that among minors who smoked in grades 9-12, the percentage who usually got their own cigarettes by buying them in a store or gas station was 4.7 percent. That was down 2 percent from the 2009 survey and 3.3 percent from the 2003 survey.
Smoking rates among students in grades 9-12 also decreased in the Fargo area, from 18.4 percent in 2009 to 13.1 percent last year and statewide from 22.4 percent to 19.4 percent.
In terms of initiatives and money spent, Scott said the compliance checks are a small part of Fargo Cass Public Health’s overall tobacco program. The annual budget for the checks is about $4,500, which covers officers’ time and youth helpers’ pay.
And with a compliance rate that consistently hovers around 90 percent, officials are pleased with the program, Scott said.
“I think part of that is that with all of the other initiatives that we have in place, tobacco use is becoming less socially acceptable,” she said. “And so I think it’s becoming very commonplace now for establishments to understand they have to check an ID to sell tobacco. It’s just not as outrageous as it was maybe 30 years ago to ask somebody for an ID to buy cigarettes.”
As with alcohol compliance checks, asking for IDs doesn’t necessarily mean a clerk will catch minors trying to buy restricted items. Scott estimated that more than 50 percent of failed checks involve IDs that are handed over and the age is either calculated incorrectly or not checked at all.
“Just because a kid hands you an ID doesn’t mean they’re of legal age for anything,” Scott said.
At West Acres All-Stop, new employees are trained to check IDs and afterward must sign a document stating that they understand the store’s policies and procedures, Dauk said.
A “legal as of this date” calendar is on display in the store, and the register has an assist function to help clerks calculate whether a buyer is old enough.
But even that isn’t foolproof: In the store’s last compliance check failure, on Sept. 12, the clerk punched in the buyer’s birth date incorrectly, and the register cleared the sale, Dauk said.
“We try hard, but everybody’s fallible,” she said. “But we try to instill that it’s a very important thing.”
To conduct the checks, a police officer teams up with two youth helpers selected by Fargo Cass Public Health. The minors use their own IDs and are told not to try to look older than their age.
“Our intent with this is not to trick businesses into selling tobacco products to a minor,” Scott said. “Really, the philosophy behind tobacco compliance checks is it’s a way to assist businesses in making sure that they are in compliance with the law.”
In Clay County, where the sheriff’s office conducts unannounced compliance checks of all tobacco retailers at least once a year, the first violation carries a $75 penalty and a written warning. There’s a $200 fine and three-day license suspension for the second violation and a $250 fine and 10-day suspension for the third violation. The retailer’s tobacco license is revoked upon a fourth violation. The enforcement period dates back to 2008.
The individual who sells the tobacco is charged a $50 penalty, said Keely Ihry, project manager for Clay County Public Health.
Tobacco license fees support the compliance checks, which cost about $50 per check, Ihry said.
In Cass County, businesses that fail compliance checks receive a warning for their first failure, a three-day suspension of the tobacco retail license for the second failure within the next 12 months and a 10-day suspension for the third failure within 12 months. The clerk or cashier who sold the tobacco faces a $50 infraction in municipal court.
Unlike alcohol compliance checks, in which Fargo businesses that fail checks can face penalties of $500 to $750, there is no monetary punishment for failing a tobacco compliance check, beyond the profit lost by not being able to sell tobacco.
Scott said Fargo Cass Public Health officials have discussed the idea, but she doesn’t know if the agency would have the staff available to pursue monetary penalties.
“I think in the future it wouldn’t be a bad idea to take a look at what the penalty structure is and see if there would be a way to improve that,” she said.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Mike Nowatzki at (701) 241-5528