More than 40 percent of Clallam County’s retail outlets sampled for the Synar Report sold tobacco products to minors in 2015. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

More than 40 percent of Clallam County’s retail outlets sampled for the Synar Report sold tobacco products to minors in 2015. (Jesse Major/Peninsula Daily News)

Rise seen in North Olympic Peninsula tobacco retailers selling to minors

Report points to higher than state average numbers for noncompliance in both Clallam and Jefferson counties.

More than 40 percent of tobacco retailers sampled in Clallam County illegally sold to minors in 2015, while Jefferson County’s noncompliance rate was lower but still above state average.

Clallam County public health officials reported the data from the Synar Report, which is done for the state Department of Health, this week.

Noncompliance rates rose statewide, but with 40.7 percent of the 27 retailers sampled selling to people younger than 18, Clallam County was significantly worse than the state average of 17.1 percent, according to the annual Synar Report.

“It is unacceptable that we have 4 out of every 10 retailers illegally selling tobacco products to minors,” said Dr. Christopher Frank, Clallam County health officer.

“Nicotine is highly addictive, and selling tobacco to youth is setting them up for a lifetime of poor health.”

In Clallam County, no stores sampled in 2014 sold tobacco products to minors who participated in the study.

A lower percentage of sampled Jefferson County retailers sold tobacco to minors in 2015, but the results are still above the state average and the highest within the past 10 years, according to the state Department of Health.

Nearly 28 percent of the 18 stores in Jefferson County that were sampled sold tobacco to minors last year, about 11 percent more than the state average.

“It’s deplorable for stores to sell tobacco to minors,” said Dr. Tom Locke, Jefferson County health officer.

“These merchants that are selling are not just breaking the law but are putting these kids at risk of a lifelong, life-threatening drug habit.”

Almost 9 out of 10 people who smoke start by age 18, and tobacco use remains the leading cause of preventable death in Washington state and Clallam County.

Frank said these starts are part of a “concerning trend” where officials are seeing higher rates of use among young people and pregnant women.

“It definitely caught our attention,” he said.

It’s the highest noncompliance rate Clallam County has had since the state began tracking in 1997, he said.

He said he would support the state sanctioning retailers who sell to minors.

Clerks who sell tobacco to minors can be fined up to $100 and retail owners can be fined up to $1,500 and might have their license revoked for up to five years, according to the state Department of Health.

Frank blamed some of the rise of use among minors on the amount of tobacco prevention funding available from the state.

In fiscal year 2016, the state spent $640,000 on tobacco prevention, the lowest level since 1998, according to The Associated Press.

As recently as 2009, the state spent $28 million on prevention, but funding was slashed during budget cuts in 2010, the AP reported.

“It’s not easy because a lot of the money that has traditionally funded local tobacco prevention efforts went away,” Frank said.

“A big part of it is we have stopped enforcing the regulations regarding sales to minors without that tobacco prevention funding.”

When the county received the state funds, it was able to fund “sting operations,” in which minors attempted to buy tobacco products from retailers. If tobacco products were sold to the minor, the retailer would be fined, he said.

Retailer education was managed by local public health until 2009, when funding for tobacco prevention in Clallam County was cut. Clallam County Health and Human Services will notify local tobacco retailers in the coming weeks to help make them aware of these recent findings and encourage them to help prevent illegal sales to minors.

“On the local level, part of our effort is reaching out to retailers and asking them to be good community members, realizing that while it might seem like a sale to a minor is a small thing, we know most people who start smoking start when they are young,” Frank said. “They really are harming that young person in their store.”

The Clallam County Board of Health is also exploring cost-effective ways of addressing this problem, he said.

Clallam County has 69 tobacco retailers and Jefferson County has 29, according to the state health department.

________

Reporter Jesse Major can be reached at 360-385-2335, ext. 5550, or at jmajor@peninsuladailynews.com.

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