Maryland health officials report a “troubling increase” in the number of businesses selling tobacco to minors.
The percentage of businesses failing tobacco compliance checks has increased 7 percent over the past two years, according to state records. An investigation by the News4 I-Team showed a series of violations in Montgomery County and Frederick in which store clerks failed to properly check the driver’s licenses of underage buyers deployed by law enforcement inspectors.
Law enforcement officials said some store clerks are growing sloppier because some government agencies are conducting far fewer tobacco compliance checks than they did five years ago. An I-Team review of state health records shows an approximately 60 percent reduction in tobacco compliance checks in Maryland between 2009 and 2014. A similar drop in state enforcement compliance checks was found between 2007 and 2014 in Virginia.
Maryland state law prohibits the sale of tobacco to anyone under the age of 18 and requires clerks check the driver’s licenses of any customer under the age of 27.
I-Team cameras showed a series of mistakes by store clerks during compliance checks this summer. In some cases, the clerks never requested the teenage buyer show an ID or failed to recognize the buyer was under the age of 18. Those buyers work undercover as part of law enforcement teams conducting the checks. Law enforcement agents in Montgomery County and Frederick issued citations to the businesses in which the sales occurred.
“If a retailer sells a tobacco product to our underage person, the clerk and the store is issued a civil citation, with a penalty of $500 each,” Montgomery County Department of Liquor Control investigator Lee Williams said.
In many cases clerks fail to properly read the age on the driver’s licenses they request from buyers, Williams said.
In the city of Frederick, the I-Team’s review found a series of errors by clerks, in quick succession, during a summer afternoon of undercover compliance checks by the city’s police department. A city police officer, who issued a citation to a gas station manager, said clerks are often fearful of being fired for failing a compliance check.
State health officials recently sent tobacco compliance training materials to all licensed tobacco retailers in Maryland.
“Fluctuation in funding of local health compliance checks doesn't negate the obligation of merchants to not sell tobacco products to minors,” said a state health department spokesman.