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Philadelphia Tries to Curb Underage Smoking

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Philadelphia has higher-than-average rates of underage smoking and has launched a program to combat it, USA Today reported Dec. 2.

According to a 2009 survey by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 7.4 percent of underage teens in Philadelphia light up every day. That rate is among the highest rates for large U.S. cities; 5.7 percent of Boston teens smoke regularly, while 4.9 percent of teens in New York City and 3.6 percent in Los Angeles do so.

The health department found that retailers in Philadelphia sold cigarettes to undercover high-school students every one in four or five attempts.

To deal with the problem, the city has sent health department workers to talk directly with retailers who sell tobacco to minors.

Lisa Ulmer, a professor of public health at Drexel University, helped design the program. It is similar to one she created in Louisiana, which is credited with driving retailer sales of tobacco to minors from 72 percent in 1997 to below 10 percent three years later.

“It’s not just the knowledge that you should not sell to kids,” Ulmer said. “Many clerks know that information, but when they’re presented with someone who might cajole them or intimidate them, they don’t have the skills not to sell.”

In Philadelphia, health department staffers visited 405 retailers during the opening months of the program, but 45 percent of them were caught selling tobacco to teens again afterwards. 

A study by the health department showed that over half of the city’s repeat violations were committed by Chinese takeout restaurants. “Some of them, they don’t know what the legal age is to sell cigarettes to,” said Jason Li, a Chinese-speaking health department staff member, who visits some of the restaurants, showing owners how to check IDs, and how to say no.  “Some of them, they know it, but it brings them business and they’re going to do it anyway.”

Cigarettes are cheap in Philadelphia — about $6 a pack — because there’s no local tax on them. 

Danny McGoldrick of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids said that price is a key factor in teen access to cigarettes. He advocated raising taxes on cigarettes because such taxes are “really good at keeping kids from moving from that experimental phase to regular smoking, because that’s where it really starts to cost.”

However, he said, “It’s tough to get the compliance so high that it’s really hard for kids to get cigarettes.”

The City Council voted to increase the fine for a violation from $100 to anywhere from $250 to $1,000 for repeat offenses, consistent with federal recommendations, Philly.com reported Dec. 2. 

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