WASHINGTON – Minors had a harder time buying cigarettes from Maryland retailers in 2002 than they did the year before, new data suggest.
In undercover stings, youths were able to buy cigarettes 25 percent of the time in 2001, but they were successful only 10 percent of the time in 2002, according to data released Wednesday by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
State officials attribute the decrease to a number of efforts, including educational programs and legal help for local governments looking for ways to reduce access to tobacco.
“There is no one magic button to push here,” said Marlene Trestman, an assistant to state Attorney General J. Joseph Curran.
The SAMHSA data come from state inspections required under the so-called Synar amendment, which provides more federal funds to states that can limit tobacco sales to minors to 20 percent of attempts or less.
Maryland is one of seven states that moved in to compliance between 2001 and 2002, joining the majority of states that were already in compliance. A total of 44 states and the District of Columbia met the goal last year.
States gather the Synar data by soliciting minors to go undercover to attempt to buy cigarettes. Montgomery County has a similar program, said county health department spokeswoman Mary Anderson.
Many retail stores object to these sting operations, which are conducted at deliberately busy times by underage buyers who look older, said Bruce Bereano, a lobbyist for state candy and tobacco retailers.
“I think it’s grossly unfair,” Bereano said.
Anti-tobacco activists acknowledge that laws that crack down on retailers do not reduce smoking among youth by themselves, since teens have other ways of getting cigarettes. But such laws help discourage kids who have experimented with tobacco, keeping them from becoming addicted, said Kari Appler, director of the group Smoke Free Maryland.
SAMHSA requires states to follow the same standards and check a minimum number of random retail outlets so that progress could be tracked year to year, SAMHSA spokesman Jim Beak said.
In 2002, Maryland surveyed 18 vending machines and 760 retail outlets, including grocery stores, convenience stores, gas stations, liquor stores and drug stores.
Owners, managers or clerks who are caught selling tobacco to minors can be fined up to $300 for a first offense, and up to $3,000 for the third offense. The fines also apply to owners of buildings with vending machines.
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene has cited other efforts to reduce cigarette sales to minors, including a “Tobacco Retailer’s Guide to Reducing Youth Access to Tobacco Products.” And two years ago, a center opened at the University of Maryland School of Law to provide legal assistance to local governments to reduce access to tobacco.