CHAPEL HILL -- Most North Carolina police officers surveyed think the state law restricting tobacco sales to adults only should be changed because it doesn't work, according to a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study. As a result, only a small percentage of officers try to enforce the law, which was intended to prevent youth access to tobacco.
"In 1991, there were almost 80,000 cigarette smokers in North Carolina between the ages of 12 and 18 and since then, the number has gone up between 10 and 20 percent," said Dr. Adam Goldstein, assistant professor of family medicine at the UNC-CH School of Medicine. "Our work shows changes need to be made in the law if we are to prevent childhood tobacco addiction."
Last fall, about 240 N.C. law enforcement officers from 50 counties and 70 cities and towns participated in the "Protect and Serve: Reducing Tobacco Sales to Children" regional training conference. Early this year, Goldstein and research associate Rachel A. Sobel mailed questionnaires to attendees asking their views on the tobacco restriction law and their enforcement of it.
Some 166 officers -- 70 percent of those at the conference -- responded. Analysis showed 85 percent of respondents said General Statute 14-313 either did not reduce or only slightly reduced tobacco sales to minors. Only 15 percent felt the law greatly cut such sales.
"More than 80 percent of officers had never issued citations to merchants for illegally selling tobacco products to youths either before or after the 'Protect and Serve' training," Goldstein said. "Prior research has shown that N.C. merchants sold tobacco products illegally to adolescents 50 percent of the time."
Seventy-four percent of responding officers cited barriers to enforcement such as lack of manpower (54 percent), a poorly written law (39 percent) and lack of funding (31 percent).
Almost nine of 10 supported changing the statute, as both the N.C. Senate and House are now considering. Eighty-six percent supported removing the word "knowingly" from the law so that merchants could be fined if they sold cigarettes and other tobacco products to children. Stronger language would make merchants more wary of under-age sales and more likely to ask for identification.
Three-quarters of respondents wanted a requirement that sellers check IDs of tobacco purchasers under age 30, and 96 percent favored restricting vending machines to locations not readily accessible to minors.
"Recognizing barriers to enforcement and working to overcome them are essential to strengthening enforcement of G.S. 14-313," Goldstein said. "The officers' responses support efforts for a clearer, more stringent law, with funding allocated for its enforcement and licensing to locate the merchants to whom the law applies."
Neither licensing nor increased funding are currently being considered in the General Assembly, he said.
An article published in the Feb. 1994 American Journal of Public Health estimated that 4.5 million packs of cigarettes were sold to N.C. youngsters in 1991.
"More than 12,000 packs of cigarettes a day, or 500 packs an hour 24 hours a day throughout the year, are being illegally sold to kids in North Carolina," Goldstein said. "Over 3,000 youths in the United States take up smoking every day, and 80 percent of them still will be smoking in five years. If you take four kids who start smoking at age 15, one or two eventually will stop successfully, but at least one will die of a smoking-related illness.
The best way to prevent tobacco addiction among children is to reduce the demand through school-based education, media campaigns and higher prices, he said. Reducing the supply by focusing on preventing illegal tobacco sales also will help.
N.C. merchants take in at least $7 million a year from tobacco sales to adolescents and younger children.
Note: Goldstein can be reached at (919) 966-4090, Sobel at 966-5083. For a police officer's perspective, call Lt. Christopher Hoina, youth services team commander at the Cary Police Department, 460-4917.