Utah has joined a growing cadre of states in a partnership with the federal government to stamp out teen smoking.
As the first step of a national plan to reduce the number of teens who use tobacco products, the state and the Food and Drug Administration Tuesday launched a multimedia advertising campaign against the sale of tobacco to minors.Mitchell Zeller, associate commissioner of the FDA, was in Salt Lake City to kick off the ad campaign, which will run in Utah for the next four weeks. In the spirit of fair warning, Zeller said the ads precede the implementation of unannounced compliance checks on tobacco retailers around the state.
The campaign will serve to remind retailers and customers of the new regulations and penalties associated with selling tobacco to minors. Utah received more than $300,000 from the FDA to conduct the compliance checks over the next year wherein minors, accompanied by a trained adult, will attempt to buy tobacco. Each retailer can expect to be visited at least once during the next year.
Those who are found selling tobacco to minors will be reported to the FDA and issued a warning for the first violation. Those who fail the first inspection can expect to be visited again, and 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.
"This is serious enforcement," Zeller said. "There are real penalties for noncompliance."
The compliance checks are just one facet of a multi-pronged plan, Zeller said. The rest, which is tied up in court pending the resolution of an appeal by tobacco companies, focuses on closing the window of availability of tobacco products to minors. It proposes to ban cigarette vending machines and other self-serve displays, as well as the sale of single cigarettes and reduced-quantity cigarette packs.
Contrary to what some have said, Zeller said the new regulations are not leading up to another Prohibition debacle.
"I've said all along that prohibition will not work. But this is not about banning cigarettes or nicotine," Zeller said. "This is about depriving the tobacco industry of their new customers . . . .
"The industry claims they don't sell or market to kids. What we're doing is just making sure that's the case."
By cutting off kids' access to tobacco products, Zeller hopes to stem the tide of children who become regular smokers. Current statistics indicate 3,000 minors become regular smokers each day. 1,000 of them can expect to die prematurely from tobacco-related illness, Zeller said.
"The facts are so powerful that they should help people who are skeptical about implementing the program," he said. "When you consider that 5 million kids who are alive today will die prematurely because of their tobacco use and that they are the leading preventable cause of death in the United States and that virtually all tobacco use begins when the users were kids or adolescents, it's compelling."
Children have always smoked, Zeller said, but current statistics indicate the number of those who become regular smokers is skyrocketing.
The reasons are complex and many, but Zeller said one of the biggest factors has to be the billions of dollars the tobacco industry spends on glitzy advertisements.
"Whether the (tobacco) industry is targeting kids or not, it's irrelevant. What matters is that there has been a dramatic increase in illegal sales to kids. Consider that the three most heavily advertised brands are also the three most heavily used brands among kids. That's no coincidence."