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3:53 AM Thu, Nov. 15th

Statewide tobacco compliance operation kicks off

Editor's note: Because "Counter Strike" was an undercover tobacco compliance operation, The Daily Courier withheld the names of the volunteers and the agents who participated in the effort.

PRESCOTT -­ A 16-year-old volunteer walked Saturday into a Chino Valley convenience store off Highway 89 and minutes later returned with a pack of cigarettes.

The volunteer said that the clerk didn't ask her for her age or to check her identification card.

When a Prescott Police officer confronted the clerk about selling tobacco to the minor, she claimed that she usually checks identifications of people who appear underage, but realized that she made a mistake this time. The clerk was visibly shaken and in tears, but cooperative.

This week Arizona Attorney General's Office, in cooperation with the Arizona Department of Health Services and local law enforcement, started the "Counter Strike" campaign by targeting underage tobacco sales across the state.

The campaign kicked off Wednesday with a nearly full-page ad in The Daily Courier, which reminded retailers that selling tobacco to minors is illegal.

Saturday's undercover investigation in the tri-city area followed Wednesday's warning. Five local underage volunteers, ages 16 and 17, and undercover agents targeted gas stations, grocery and convenience stores to determine whether they are in compliance with the state's tobacco law.

Thirteen businesses out of 60 that they approached during a four-and-a-half hour period failed the test.

Prescott Valley retailers appear to have the best compliance rate among the three vicinities with one sale out of 21 attempts.

The agent in charge of the effort said it is uncommon to see that many retailers comply because an average non-compliance rate is about 25 percent.

Volunteers reported that some of the Prescott Valley retailers suspected the youth visits were a part of the undercover sting because they saw the ad.

In Prescott, eight retailers out of 31 sold tobacco to minors without verifying their age while in Chino Valley four businesses complied with requirements and four failed.

A follow-up ad will run on May 6, reporting the names of retailers which passed or failed the compliance checks.

"I'm committed to reducing youth tobacco use in Arizona," Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said. "Selling tobacco products to minors is against the law, and those who do will be held accountable."

Statistics show that about 80 percent of adult smokers begin before age 18, according to an Attorney General's Office press release. Every year more than 6,000 people younger than 18 become smokers. About 21 percent of Arizona high school students say they smoke. Arizona kids buy or smoke more than 14 million packs of cigarettes each year.

The Attorney General's tobacco enforcement unit conducted 3,500 tobacco inspections during the 2006-07 fiscal year, said Darryl Rivers, the lead special agent of the unit.

Unlike with the "Counter Strike" campaign, no announcement precedes those inspections, Rivers said.

"We usually do not give them a heads-up," Rivers said.

According to another agent once volunteers make a buy, a local officer will go in and issue a citation to the store's clerk. Rivers said the fine could be as much as $300 depending on the county where the violation occurred.

Each retailer inspected will receive notice regardless whether they passed or failed.

A 16-year-old volunteer, who bought cigarettes in three Chino Valley stores, was surprised the clerks didn't question her about her age, particularly in a liquor store where sale requirements should be stricter, she thought.

"I didn't think I look that old," she said.

To report a retailer you believe is selling tobacco to minors call the Counter Strike Hotline at 866-342-7855.

Contact the reporter at mburic@prescottaz.com