December 5, 2010 - Philadelphia has a teen smoking rate that is No. 1 among big cities with comparable data. The City Council voted unanimously Thursday, December 2nd to raise fines on merchants who sell to youths and to make it easier to temporarily shut them down for repeat violations.
Philadelphia has an unusually high number of retailers: one for every 27 kids ages 10 to 17. More than three-quarters of them are located within 1,000 feet of a school. Undercover compliance checks have found that kids successfully buy cigarettes a fifth of the time.
City Code treats illegal sales by retailers like a parking ticket (but one that is handled far less efficiently than the parking authority would). A summons is mailed out several weeks after the offense; the store owner mails back a $100 check for the first, second or even seventh offense, and usually that is the end of it. The amendment given final approval on Thursday raises the fine to $250. It also streamlines the process, rarely used by the Department of Licenses and Inspections in the recent past, to temporarily cease operations of retailers after a third violation. Officials say the Department of Public Health will also be more involved, with workers visiting every retailer within two days of every illegal sale.
The City Code is still far weaker than state statutes that cover all underage sales in New Jersey and everything in Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia. Those have graduated fine structures, reaching $1,000 or more for repeat offenses. The courts also get involved in every case, a procedure that city Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz said would be preferable but would overwhelm Municipal Court with 1,000 more cases a year. New Jersey five years ago also raised the minimum age for sales of tobacco to minors to 19; state excise taxes are higher there as well, a signifcant deterrent for youths with limited spare change.
Pennsylvania - only state with no state tax on cigars and smokeless tobacco products..
Researchers say disposable income plays a major role in teen smoking. Indeed, while Philadelphia’s rate of 3.6 percent is highest among comparable big cities, it is less than half the national rate of 7.3 percent, which includes high school students from the suburbs and other areas. Statewide rates are 7.6 percent in Pennsylvania and 5.5 percent in New Jersey.
Disposable income also likely explains the huge racial and ethnic disparities in Philadelphia’s teen smoking rates: 15.6 percent for whites, 3.1 percent for Hispanics, and 1.2 percent for blacks. Both the white rate and the overall rate are the highest among select cities, according to the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey’s interactive data tool.
Statistics compiled by the city show that Philadelphia has 4,398 tobacco retailers, or 27 for every 1,000 children ages 10 to 17 - double the ratio in Chicago, San Diego, and New York. Forty percent are within one block of a school, 80 percent within two blocks. "As kids are walking to and from school, they are exposed to a lot of tobacco advertising," said Giridhar Mallya, director of policy and planning for the Philadelphia Department of Public Health, adding that manufacturers responded to increased ad restrictions by relying more on retailers to get out their message.
Tobacco excise taxes, which are controlled by the state, mean that cigarettes in Philadelphia cost $6 to $7 a pack, compared with $8 to $9 in Boston and, with a recently approved increase, nearly $11 in New York City, he said. And if a pack is too expensive, retailers here, many of them small operations, also seem more willing than merchants elsewhere to sell "loosies," he said - two cigarettes for $1.
More than a third of teens in the city buy tobacco directly from a shop, officials said, another No. 1 for Philadelphia.
"They can bum and borrow, but when they actually can buy their own cigarettes, [smoking becomes] much harder to control," said pediatrician Sara B. Kinsman, who works with adolescents at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. Smoking causes youth health problems, worsening asthma for example. .But the biggest concern about youth smoking, Kinsman said, is that 80 percent of adult smokers started in their teens.
It is a circular problem in Philadelphia, which has some of the highest adult smoking rates among big cities. Youths here "grow up in environments where they see adults smoking," Mallya said.
Among children, the rate is almost entirely a white phenomenon: More than 15 percent of white students in ninth through 12th grade said in last year's national Youth Risk Behavior Survey that they had smoked on at least 20 of the last 30 days. That's five times the Hispanic rate and 14 times the black rate.
Public-health workers say white teens have more money than minority youths to spend on cigarettes. That situation changes when they reach adulthood. Philadelphia's adult smoking rate - 27 percent in 2008, according to the regional Household Health Survey - is almost identical among the three groups.
The city has no authority over tobacco taxes and limited control over the number of retailers, who can get a state tobacco license for $25. So officials have focused on illegal sales to teens.
For years, a retailer who sold tobacco to an undercover "youth surveyor," observed by an adult, would receive, several weeks later by mail, a $100 summons, similar to a parking ticket. Even when the Department of Licenses and Inspections shut down a repeat violator, Mallya said, the shop owner could pay a fine and reopen the same day.
Along with the ordinance scheduled for a final Council vote Thursday, policy changes will enable city workers to deliver, within two days, the summonses that currently go by mail; they will use the opportunity to educate shop owners.
The implementation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Retailer Compliance Program should help stop sales of tobacco to youngsters. (U.S. FDA publishes rule to protect our children that restrict advertising and marketing of tobacco products..)
New Jersey law, which defines underage as younger than 19, fines the clerk who makes the sale, rather than the owner, at a rate of $250 for the first violation up to $1,000 for the third. A judge signs off on all cases and adds $158 in various fees.
Pennsylvania law, which is far newer than Philadelphia's, applies to the rest of the state. Both owners and sellers are held responsible, with graduated fines of up to $5,000 for a retailer's fourth offense and $100 to $1,000 for the clerk. A district justice must sign off on all cases.
Philadelphia Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz told Council that he would love to treat underage sales as a criminal offense but that Municipal Court simply could not deal with 1,000 more cases a year.
Philadelphia is increasing its compliance checks to more than 8,000 this year using federal stimulus dollars.
The news is grimmer elsewhere. Faced with budget cuts, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have sharply reduced money for prevention, including compliance checks - a big worry for suburban health officials, who have seen their rates of illegal sales plummet from 50 percent to under 10 percent over the several years that the programs had been in full swing. (State Cigarette Excise Taxes: July 2010)
References: Philadelphia raises penalties for underage tobacco sales, posted by Don Sapatkin firstname.lastname@example.org), Te Philadlephia Inquirer, 12/2/2010; Philadelphia teen-smoking rate is among the worst of big cities by Don Sapatkin (email@example.com) Inquirer Staff Writer, Philadlephia Inquirer, 12/2010.