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BOSTON -- The number of stores illegally selling cigarettes to teenagers in Massachusetts more than tripled in the past year, according to a new survey, after budget cuts forced health boards across the state to abandon their local inspection programs.
In a sting operation run by the Massachusetts Association of Health Boards, teen volunteers were sent into shops to buy cigarettes in 68 municipalities that had stopped performing spot checks of tobacco sales. The teens were successful in 29 percent of the stores they visited in February, March and April, according to The Boston Globe.
In 2002, comparable figures from the same towns showed that only 9 percent of stores would sell to underage customers.
"It's alarming and depressing to see that after years of progress on the state and local level of reducing youth tobacco use that it could unravel that quickly," said Lori Fresina, regional advocacy director for the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids. "And hopefully it's a wake-up call to Beacon Hill, because they have the opportunity with their budget to reverse this."
When deep cuts were made last year to the state's widely emulated Tobacco Control Program public health authorities eliminated grants for 143 antismoking programs run by local health boards across Massachusetts, the report said.
The 68 cities and towns included in the study stretched from one end of the state to the other, although there was a concentration in the suburbs west of Boston. In 2002, all 68 communities routinely performed spot checks on stores to determine if they were selling cigarettes to buyers under the age of 18.
In the past three months, the Association of Health Boards replicated those compliance checks, with teens visiting a total of 221 retailers. The teens were instructed to simply ask clerks for a pack of Marlboros. They were told not to sweet-talk the clerks or to become belligerent. The result: The teens walked out of 64 of the 221 stores with cigarettes.
The executive director of the New England Convenience Store Association agreed that enforcement helps assure compliance. But Cathy Flaherty said that even without spot checks, stores that derive 30 percent to 50 percent of their sales from cigarettes are loath to risk losing their cigarette-sales license by selling to teens.
"This is their livelihood; this is their bread and butter," Flaherty, leader of the 1,000-member trade group, told the The Boston Globe. "When a product is that prevalent in your sales, you do anything and everything you can to protect it."