SANTA CRUZ — An anti-tobacco group is encouraging county leaders to adopt a tobacco licensing ordinance following a survey it conducted that showed an increase in the number of businesses willing to sell to minors.
On Tuesday, the Santa Cruz County Tobacco Education Coalition released the results of a survey it conducted over a five-day period in August that showed the increase.
Natasha Kowalski, the coalition’s senior health educator, said the survey involved about 10 youths between the ages of 15 and 17 who visited 142 stores across the county under the concealed supervision of an adult. Of the establishments visited, 38 were sold tobacco products to the youths without first verifying their ages.
The survey showed that the highest incidence of underage sales, 42 percent, happened in unincorporated areas of the county. That was followed by the city of Santa Cruz at 26 percent, Capitola at 18 percent and Watsonville at 10 percent.
Only 17 percent of establishments visited in a similar survey conducted in March 2008 sold tobacco products to minors, the group reported.
Kowalski could not explain the increase from 2008 to 2010, but said the numbers “ebb and flow” and tend to drop during targeted educational campaigns and press coverage about underage sales.
Kowalski and Peter Nichols, who chairs the Santa Cruz County Alcohol and Drug Abuse Commission, said they met with county supervisors last summer to discuss a possible licensing ordinance, but no action has been taken. Nichols said it’s critical for law enforcement to back an ordinance, which has no power without enforcement. While he understands the issues that can prevent law enforcement from enforcing tobacco laws already in effect, including lack of manpower and other higher priorities, a lack of enforcement can lead to retailers selling to minors.
Supervisor John Leopold said he recently approached Santa Cruz County Sheriff Phil Wowak about the issue and was assured that the Sheriff’s office would continue education and enforcement.
“If he thinks we need to do an ordinance, I think the board will be very receptive to that,” he added.
In late August, the Watsonville City Council approved an ordinance that will require, starting on Jan. 1, the city’s 61 tobacco retailers to pay $255 per year for a license to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products. Watsonville police say the ordinance will give them the authority and resources to enforce existing state and federal laws aimed at keeping minors from smoking.
The city will use the fees it collects to administer the licenses and pay the police department to conduct decoy operations each year to ensure the law is being followed.
The ordinance was prompted by a police decoy operation during the spring, in which two of four targeted businesses sold cigarettes to minors.
“Watsonville has set an example and embraced a solution that will protect our youth today and in the years to come, and we really hope people will look to Watsonville and follow their example,” Kowalski said.
Watsonville Deputy Chief Robert Knill, who wrote the ordinance, said most of the city’s businesses are complying with the law, and that all 18 businesses visited during a decoy operation conducted in August requested identification from the decoy. That operation was conducted during daytime hours on weekdays, which Knill said could explain the difference in results from the coalition’s survey results. But he pointed out there are always smaller stores where minors know they can purchase tobacco products, and that’s where the ordinance would likely have the greatest effect.
The ordinance provides not only a mechanism for enforcement — a first-time penalty will carry a $1,000 penalty, a second offense within 60 months costs $5,000 — but also allows local law enforcement officers to educate businesses, Knill said.