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    Tesoro Faces Tobacco Penalty

    Alaska lawmakers could recommend a 30-day ban on sales recommended for violations in 2000.

    ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- After nearly two years of ongoing debate, three Tesoro stores in Anchorage where clerks sold Copenhagen chewing tobacco to minors would lose their right to sell tobacco for 30 days if a state commissioner follows the recommendation of a hearing officer.

    A ban on tobacco sales would cost the company an average of $620 in gross profits per store per day, according to testimony before hearing officer David Stebing. That adds up to more than $55,000 over a month's time for the three stores, the Anchorage Daily News reported. Tobacco makes up 30 percent of Tesoro's non-gasoline sales, the company said.

    Tesoro fired one of the three clerks and suspended the other two without pay after they were cited by Anchorage police officers in May 2000, said Ron Noel, vice president of Tesoro 's Alaska operations. The cases against the clerks were all resolved in court that year.

    The state now must decide how to punish the stores. Tesoro argued for three-day suspensions, saying the sales were the result of human error. None of the stores or clerks had previously been cited, and Tesoro has a tobacco-sale training program for clerks, the company said.

    The state sought 20 to 30 days. Stebing, who has recommended even longer bans for stores with a history of selling to minors, proposed 30 days but could have gone as high as 45, the report said.

    "Strong public policy exists in the area of regulating sales of tobacco products because of the great potential for harm," Stebing wrote. Even if a clerk makes an innocent mistake, he wrote, "there is a potential for catastrophic consequences insofar as a young person may become addicted to a tobacco product."

    A decision in the case is expected this week by Judge Betty Sedwick, who is also reconsidering a decision from earlier this year to strip away tobacco rights for 45 or 90 days at five Williams Express convenience stores.

    "This is a department that has as part of its mission to be business friendly. We ought not to unfairly penalize our businesses," Sedwick said.

    State law changed Jan. 1 to require a 20-day ban for a first offense. Under the new law, progressively longer bans must be imposed each time a clerk is convicted of an underage sale. The new law might need revisiting, Sedwick said.

    So far this year, 50 clerks at 50 different stores have been cited for selling tobacco to minors, the report said.

    The legal age for tobacco use in Alaska, Alabama and Utah is 19. In all other states, the legal age to buy and possess tobacco is 18.

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