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DES MOINES, Iowa -- An extended crackdown on tobacco sales to minors is partially responsible for an 11-percent drop in the number of Des Moines businesses that sell cigarettes.
State officials deny that increased enforcement over the past two years has chased stores out of the tobacco business. Sales permits fell about 2 percent statewide this year, the Des Moines Register reported.
"Our policy has never been to go out and write a lot of tickets," said Gary Marker of the Iowa Alcoholic Beverages Division, which oversees the state's tobacco-enforcement program. "Our policy has been to have the retailers comply" voluntarily.
Businesses must renew permits by June 30 each year. The city sent renewal notices to 282 businesses this year; only 251 came back. There are about 4,900 permits statewide, about 100 fewer than last year, the report said. Businesses and the clerks who sell tobacco to customers younger than 18 can be fined up to $300 for the first offense and face stiffer penalties for repeat violations.
Compliance checks were stepped up about two years ago with money from the state's lawsuit settlement with tobacco companies. Most businesses are targeted for sting operations once or twice a year. About 12 percent sold to minors in 2001, down from 18 percent the year before. About 33 percent of businesses sold to minors before enforcement was increased, Marker said.
The owners of one Amoco convenience store in Des Moines stopped selling cigarettes in the past year, according to sales associate Lyn Crueger. She and the store were fined after she sold tobacco to a 17-year-old boy. "He had a suit on and he looked older," Crueger said.
Iowans now smoke nearly 250 million packs of cigarettes annually, representing a 6-percent decline over the past 11 years, the report said.