The owners of Circle K convenience stores aren't waiting for the government to stiffen the penalties for merchants caught selling tobacco to teens.

Instead, the chain of gas and goodies stores is stepping up its efforts to train employees about who they can sell to, how to spot fake identification and how to avoid problems when denying a sale."Kids are quite creative in their efforts to mislead our sales associates," said Jim Walker, Circle K regional loss prevention manager. "Fake IDs, notes from home and using adults as middlemen are just a few of the tricks they use."

The training program will augment what the stores already do to teach employees about state and federal law and how to deal with problems realistically.

It's a program born of a partnership between the stores and the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing, Washington, D.C., and comes at a time when there is growing criticism from the government that retailers put profit above public health by selling tobacco products to underage youth.

In Utah, two lawmakers sponsored bills this session to make it tougher for teens to buy tobacco and create stronger penalties for those who sell to underage youth. A person must be 19 to buy tobacco products in Utah.

One of those bills, which passed the Utah House and Senate, was sponsored by Sen. Robert Montgomery, R-North Ogden. It allows the Utah State Tax Commission to suspend or revoke a business' license to sell tobacco products if it is caught selling to minors. It also creates hefty fines.

Despite the age limit and strict laws requiring buyers to show identification to store clerks, underage teens find it fairly easy to buy tobacco products locally.

"When we send our decoys out during sting operations," said Salt Lake Police Sgt. Ken Hansen, "we have about a 60 percent success rate."

He said sometimes the underage decoy will actually show real identification that says he or she is under the age of 19 and is still allowed to buy tobacco products.

Hansen does believe, however, that most merchants are making honest efforts to train employees not to sell to minors. Circle K's program, he said, is a start and a step in the right direction.

Walker said Circle K initiated the program on its own, not because of political pressure but because the managers "feel some corporate responsibility to do so."

"It's part of an ongoing (company) feeling that everything that goes on in the community affects our stores in one way or another."