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Three Vashon retailers fail sting operation, sell tobacco to teens
Undercover teens bought tobacco from three of the four Vashon retailers subjected to a routine sting operation earlier this year, alarming health officials who say it’s the first time in years so many Vashon vendors have failed to pass the unannounced inspections.
The state Liquor Control Board hires teens who visit Vashon about once a year, said Scott Neal, the tobacco prevention program manager for Public Health – Seattle & King County. Between 2006 and 2009, no retailers failed the inspection; last year one did, he said.
Health officials were troubled to see such a high failure rate during this spring’s sweep, Neal said.
“It’s definitely concerning. We’re not going in the right direction,” he said.
The four stores that were checked were the Vashon Market, the Vashon Mart at the Chevron Station, Mom’s Deli and Harbor Mercantile in Burton. Only Harbor Mercantile did not sell tobacco to underage teens, according to the health department. The three stores that sold to teens face $100 fines. The clerks are fined $50.
Joe Aubry, manager of the Vashon Market, the IGA store on 100th Avenue S.W., called the store’s sale to minors “an unfortunate situation.”
“We’ve corrected it and retrained our checkers, and we hopefully won’t have any more issues,” he said.
At Mom’s Deli, manager Diane Garcia said the store is also attempting to address the problem.
“We are talking to the kids who work here and stressing that they have to be more consistent at looking at the ID and checking the dates. It happens and it shouldn’t,” she said.
Neal said the health department focuses on tobacco sales to minors not only because it’s against the law but also because research shows that tobacco addiction most often starts in youth. “Eighty to 90 percent of adult smokers started as teenagers,” he said.
Washington, like many states in the country, has worked to curtail youth smoking, using money from the large settlement with the tobacco industry in 1998 to fund campaigns aimed at teenagers. Neal said those campaigns have largely worked: 70,000 fewer young people are smoking in Washington, he said, and overall, the rate of youth tobacco use has fallen by half.
But in the last three years, he said, money for the campaign has largely vanished and “progress has been stalled.”
At the same time, he said, the tobacco industry continues to go after the youth market, creating products — such as cigars, cigarillos and snus (teabag-like pouches of tobacco) in flavors such as peach, chocolate, strawberry and grape — that are attractive to youth.
“Tobacco use is still the number one cause of preventable deaths in the U.S. and in King County. There’s issue fatigue on the tobacco issue. But it’s still linked to more deaths than anything else,” he said.
He said he hopes the sales on Vashon were a quirk, not a sign that retailers are growing lax. “A lot of times, it could be new staff or staff turnover,” he said.