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• Undercover: Retailers smoke out underage customers

PRESCOTT - Nearly one in four Arizona retailers illegally sold tobacco products to people younger than 18 during a five-week series of inspections in five Arizona counties, the Arizona Attorney General's Office says.

Prescott Valley and Tucson retailers had the highest compliance rate. Only one retailer out of 21 sold to underage buyers in Prescott Valley and six out of 100 did so in Tucson.

In cooperation with the Arizona Department of Health Services and local law enforcement, the Attorney General's Office conducted

461 tobacco compliance inspections during the "Counter Strike" campaign it kicked off in the

tri-city area.

The campaign showed that 107 - or 23 percent - of Arizona retailers inspected violated the law by selling tobacco products to minors.

"The results of this campaign show us where our education and outreach efforts are working and where we need to step up efforts to make sure retailers are complying with the law," Attorney General Terry Goddard said.

Five underage volunteers and undercover agents targeted 60 gas stations, grocery and convenience stores in the tri-city area and 13 of them failed the test. In Prescott, eight retailers out of 31 sold tobacco to minors without verifying their age, while in Chino Valley four businesses complied with those requirements and four failed. Law enforcement cited clerks who

sold tobacco to juveniles, and they could face fines of as much as $300.

This year's rate of noncompliance was significantly higher than in 2006 when 432 inspections resulted in 32 failures.

The Attorney General's Office attributes it to a greater number of checks this past year in Tucson where businesses could face revocations of their tobacco retailer licenses if they sell to people younger than 18.

Since 2002, the Attorney General's Office conducted more than 10,000 undercover inspections throughout Arizona.

Statistics show that about 80 percent of adult smokers begin before age 18, an Attorney General's press release said. 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.

Goddard stores could increase compliance with the law by:

• Training employees to card anyone who appears younger than 30.

• Installing devices that prompt employees to request identification whenever a customer tries to buy tobacco.

• Posting signs telling customers they must show identification and cannot buy tobacco if they are underage.

• Discipline employees who make such sales and reward employees who refuse to sell tobacco to minors.

Contact the reporter at mburic@prescottaz.com

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