In the wake of state and national reports that Utahns are staying away from tobacco in droves, a federal report shows sales to minors in Utah have dropped to an all-time low.

The decline in sales to minors is a nationwide trend, according to Terry Cline, an administrator with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which released the report Monday. For the first time, retailers in all 50 states and the District of Columbia had the lowest number ever of underage purchases.

"Clearly, the incident rate shows state tobacco-control, education and enforcement efforts are working," Cline said, noting that Utah's extraordinarily low tobacco-use and quit rate, coupled with businesses cracking down on sales to underage customers, is having an significant effect.

The state has imposed graduated levels of fines and other punitive steps a retailer can face, including the suspension of all sales for repeated violations.

Lena Dibble, coordinator of the state health department's anti-tobacco campaign, said the effort takes an educational approach with retailers.

"Obviously, retailers don't want to sell to minors," Dibble said, noting that random visits to retailers are conducted by the health department, in addition to employee training.

"This is a very important statistic in our overall effort," she said. "More than 80 percent of smokers in Utah say they started using tobacco before age 18, many at about age 13. And a third of those still smoking today will die from diseases caused by the habit."

Cline said the states that are most successful in reducing tobacco sales to minors have an array of strategies, such as targeted merchant and community education, public awareness campaigns and community coalitions.

Utah's approach is comprehensive, she added. "We encourage kids not to use tobacco, do what we can to eliminate the source of them getting it, then try to do everything we can to help smokers quit."

The Utah Attorney General's Office, which helps enforce state tobacco laws, says the report is another encouraging indication that retailers are doing a better keeping tobacco out of the hands of kids.

Annually, more than 1,100 Utah adults die as a result of their own smoking, and as many as 250 adults, children and babies die due to second-hand smoke exposure, according to the health department. The Utah economy loses $530 million each year to smoking-attributable medical and productivity costs.

In the past nine years, the number of Utahns who smoke has dropped by two-thirds. In 1999, 30 percent of Utahns smoked. This year, 9.5 percent of Utahns were smokers.

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