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    Alaska Operators Fuming

    Tobacco retailers balk at penalties for clerks' mistakes.

    JUNEAU, Alaska -- Some local tobacco dealers are questioning the fairness of tobacco violation penalties they face when clerks sell tobacco products to minors.

    The issue was raised after police conducted a sting operation at 19 randomly chosen stores last weekend and cited six clerks for selling tobacco to a minor, according to a report in The Juneau Empire.

    Over the last three days, police issued citations to clerks from six convenience store chains, including Williams Express and Tesoro, as well as a Super Kmart. Each clerk was fined $300.

    Under Alaska law, each time a clerk is cited for selling tobacco to a minor, store owners also face fines of between $300 and $2,500 and can lose their tobacco license for one month to one year, depending on the number of prior violations the store has, according to the state tobacco statute.

    The recent wave of stings was the second time clerks at Tesoro and a Fisherman's Bend convenience store were caught selling tobacco to minors, the report said. The other stores had no previous violations.

    John Weedman, general manager for Fisherman's Bend, said punishing the store is not necessarily appropriate. "I could see if we were repeat offenders, consistently not following the law and being punished that way," he said. "But for one mistake, it seems a little extreme."

    Weedman said the clerk sold to a minor because he "didn't use the tools available to cashiers" at the store, such as a calendar by the cash register that helps determine whether a customer is of legal age. In addition, employees are put through "We Card" training at the time of hire.

    "This is the first time we've been cited in numerous sting efforts," said Weedman. "The clerk will have to answer for it. ... We're not concerned about it happening again. We've made it clear to the rest of the employees that this will not be tolerated."

    Weedman declined to say whether the clerk is still employed with the company, the report said.

    Tesoro owner Richard Godfrey said he thinks the penalties are appropriate when a store owner doesn't train an employee, but not if the proper procedures are in place.

    "We have a zero-tolerance policy," said Godfrey. "You sell to minors, you no longer work here and we train our employees in what to look for. But we can't be here over their shoulders 24 hours a day, obviously. You're going to have people who make mistakes.

    "No merchant wants to sell tobacco to kids. So after you train all you can, and you try to hire responsible people, what else can you do?"

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