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Progress being made in stopping illegal sale of tobacco product

by Jim Fisher

STAFF WRITER

CLARKSBURG -- Nationwide anti-tobacco campaigns and stricter federal laws seem to be curbing the tide of underage smoking. A new federal report shows that instances of retailers selling tobacco to children are dropping.

And West Virginia is among the nation's leaders in stopping the illegal sale of tobacco products, according to the report.

In 2002, West Virginia reported a retailer violation rate of just 10.1 percent, below the national average of 14.1 percent and nearly half of the targeted 20 percent. Numbers for 2003 won't be known until later this year.

The report was generated by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

"It's getting better but we're not there yet," said Clarksburg Police officer Tommy Thomas. "This is something that we need to keep hitting hard, because if they can get away with smoking at 14 or 15, it leads to other things."

Thomas heads up the department's Drug Abuse Resistance Education, or D.A.R.E., program, which encourages school children to avoid drugs and make positive life choices.

The federal findings are based on reports submitted by states in response to a 1992 law restricting access to tobacco by youth under the age of 18. Among other provisions, the Synar Amendment requires states to have and enforce youth tobacco laws.

While West Virginia is on the right track, more work is needed to further bring the number of retail violators down, said Amy Shuler Goodwin, press secretary to Gov. Bob Wise.

"It's one of the more encouraging factors we've seen that the laws are working," she said. "That's one of the reasons the governor is committed to putting even more money into programming and education."

Despite a 38-cent increase last year, Wise again is asking the Legislature to increase the state tax on cigarettes, Shuler Goodwin said. If that increase is passed, it will generate an additional $36 million, of which Wise has committed about $6.5 million to anti-tobacco campaigns, she said.

In addition to the federal report, there are other indications that teen tobacco use is dropping.

Every three years or so, Harrison County schools ask teens to complete a "Pride Survey." Among the questions are about tobacco use, said Kathy Loretta, supervisor of comprehensive school health.

"It's not to say it's ideal yet, but the numbers that we run ... they are definitely going down," Loretta said. "I can only think the education is working."

Mary Beth Mazzie, a senior at Liberty High School and member of Teens Against Tobacco Use, agreed. TATU is a group dedicated to eradicating tobacco use among young people. They not only work in their own schools, but also spread their health-conscious message to elementary and middle school students.

Mazzie said she personally has seen a decline in the number of teens who smoke, which probably contributes to the encouraging numbers reported in the federal study.

"I see some of that, but I also think that some people just have their friends buy cigarettes for them. But for the most part, I think it is going down," Mazzie said. "There's always stuff you can do to improve (education), like focus more on middle school kids, because I think that's where it starts more."

Mazzie also has participated in several tobacco stings with area law enforcement.

Such operations are an effective tool for police to crack down on illegal sales, said Bridgeport Police Chief Jack Clayton. Improved technology also probably contributes to the drop in retailer violations, he said.

Some stores have begun using a system of hand-held scanners that read the bar code on the back of West Virginia driver's licenses and identification cards. In some stores, sales of alcohol and tobacco cannot be processed until the identification is scanned.

This system helps prevent one of the biggest compliance issues, Clayton said: Teens selling to their friends.

Clayton and Clarksburg Police Chief John Walker both agreed that retailer compliance has increased over the last several years.

"Eight years ago, we could probably get eight out of 10 stores (to sell during a sting operation)," Walker said. "Today, we'd probably be hard pressed to find one or two. We've definitely seen a dramatic improvement in retailers being more cautious and not selling to underage people."

Staff writer Jim Fisher can be reached at 626-1446 or by e-mail at jfisher@exponent-telegram.com