The Food and Drug Administration announced Thursday it will work in partnership with the state of Utah to crack down on tobacco sales to minors.
But one Utah representative says the measures they plan to take aren't enough.Beginning this year, the FDA will work with local health departments and law enforcement agencies to enforce FDA regulations that prohibit retailers from selling tobacco products to youths younger than 18.
For Utahns, though, the regulations are even more stringent. The FDA-regulated minimum purchasing age nationwide is 18, but Utah is one of only a few states to receive an exemption, raising the age to 19.
The FDA announced that Utah will receive $304,068 to conduct thousands of unannounced compliance checks over the next year. Minors, accompanied by adults, will enter retail stores throughout the state and attempt to purchase tobacco products.
Every store that sells tobacco products will be visited at least once, said Elizabeth Thackeray, community health coordinator of Utah's Tobacco Prevention and Control program.
Retailers who sell tobacco products to people younger than 19 will be reported to the FDA and issued a warning for the first violation. They will also be subject to additional inspections, Thackeray said. Repeat offenders will be fined: $250 for the second violation, $1,500 for the third, $5,000 for the fourth and $10,000 for the fifth.
Since the FDA was given power to regulate cigarettes and smokeless tobacco in 1997, retailers have been required to check photo IDs of anyone younger than age 27 attempting to buy tobacco products and prohibit anyone younger than 19 from purchasing the products.
Although the compliance checks are a nice first step, they're "by no means enough," said Utah Rep. Steve Barth, D-Salt Lake City.
"Access to tobacco products is definitely an issue," Barth said. "I think keeping retailers from selling tobacco to kids is a piece of the puzzle. But, it's just one piece. I don't think it will stop kids from getting tobacco. What we really need to do is educate kids. That's where the money would be better spent.
"Utah is one of the few states where teen smoking is up," he said. "The money is nice, but if we really want to make a difference, education is the way to go."
Thackeray agreed that educating teens about the dangers of smoking is vital. But, she said, it's a difficult thing to do.
"What we're finding is that a lot of teens are smoking to rebel against authority. So, if you've got people in authority talking to them about tobacco, it's a real challenge."
Thackeray said the state's priority is a more comprehensive approach to reducing teen smoking, focusing on media advertising, reducing teens' access to tobacco, and education programs.
For its part, FDA spokeswoman Ivy Kupec said the agency is also trying to implement the other facets of its overall plan - limiting tobacco companies' appeal campaigns (advertising the FDA says is directed toward youth) and beefing up education programs - to complement efforts by the states. But, she said, the process has been slowed by legal battles with tobacco companies and others.
"We have very ambitious goals to cut teen smoking. But, right now we really can't have a definite time plan to implement them. Our fate lies in the courts."
Utah's $300,000 allocation is part of the FDA's $34 million budget to assist states in enforcing regulations and educating people about its tobacco policy's provisions.
Nationally, the FDA hopes to reduce by half the numbers of young people who smoke in the next seven years. According to recent FDA findings, 3,000 children and adolescents become regular smokers every day.