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INDIANAPOLIS -- Convenience store retailers and other tobacco merchants selling tobacco products in Indiana will have to register each year and pay a $50 fee, under legislation that passed the General Assembly this session giving regulators more tools to crack down on the sale of tobacco products to minors.
The Indiana Alcohol and Tobacco Commission (ATC) and anti-tobacco activists never have had a reliable count of the number of tobacco-product retailers. One estimate based on a 1997 economic census is 14,000, while ATC Chairwoman Mary DePrez said the number might be as high as 30,000, according to a report in the Indianapolis Business Journal.
In addition to building on a 1999 law intended to curb the sale of tobacco products to minors, the new law generates hundreds of thousands of dollars a year -- possibly even millions -- for the cash-strapped ATC, the report said. Registration by 25,000 retailers would generate $1.25 million a year. Other fee hikes in the bill would raise hundreds of thousands more.
The state's interest in curtailing underage tobacco sales goes beyond public health concerns. As part of the state's Tobacco Retailer Inspection Program, or TRIP, police officers conduct random checks by sending 15- to-17-year-olds into stores to attempt to by cigarettes.
If the non-compliance rate on the checks tops 20 percent, the state forgoes $13 million a year in federal funding to its Family and Social Services Administration. The non-compliance rate during last month's checks was 11.4 percent, said Penny Davis, superintendent of the excise police.
State officials say the registry will allow inspectors to hit retailers they hadn't known about. The list also will enable them to do a better job educating retailers on the current laws and why they're important. For example, stores that sell primarily tobacco products are supposed to post signs that people under 18 are not allowed to enter, but many are not complying, state officials said.
The new law establishes fines for specific offenses -- the maximum penalty for failing to register, for instance, is $10,000--and gives the ATC new power to enforce fines. Because the agency previously had to go through the attorney general's office to enforce fines, some retailers with repeat violations weren't bothering to pay.
Retailers are comfortable with the registration, which results in retailers' receiving a tobacco certificate, because it does not have the administrative burdens a full licensing process would have, said Grant Monahan, president of the Indiana Retail Council.
"We are interested in seeing tobacco sales to minors stopped, and our members work hard every day to do that," he said. "Where there are retailers that continuously sell to minors or ignore paying their fines, they should be punished, and we aren't gong to appeal to legislators to ignore that."