FDA Checks Reveal Stores Illegally Sell Tobacco to Minors

Searcy Denney Scarola Barnhart & Shipley

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s crackdown on Big Tobacco continues. The agency sent warning letters to 55 point-of-purchase locations that sell cigarettes and related products in an effort to underscore newly passed regulations that make it a crime to purvey those cancer-causing items to anyone younger than 18.

Related products include chewing tobacco, cigars, electronic cigarettes and tobacco for hookah pipes, the latter two a big trend among teens and young adults. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, electronic-cigarette use increased to 5.3 percent among middle-school students in 2015, up from .6 percent in 2011. As for hookah pipes, a total of 2 percent of middle- and high-school students reported they had puffed in 2015, a jump from 2011’s 1 percent.

“Cigarette smoking has declined among U.S. youth in recent years, but the use of some other tobacco products has increased,” a CDC fact sheet states. “Youth who use multiple tobacco products are at higher risk for developing nicotine dependence and might be more likely to continue using tobacco into adulthood.”

The newly passed regulations further require stores to card customers who look younger than 27 and are trying to buy tobacco. Apparently, that is not happening as much as it should. Checks for compliance at convenience stores, supermarkets and other specialty shops show minors have been able to buy exactly what they are not supposed to.

“We’re helping protect the health of America’s youth by enforcing restrictions that make it illegal to sell tobacco products to minors – including e-cigarettes, e-liquids and cigars,” the FDA’s Mitch Zeller said in a press release titled “FDA protects kids from illegal sales of e-cigarettes, e-liquids and cigars.” “Retailers play a vital role in keeping harmful and addictive tobacco products out of the hands of children and we urge them to take that responsibility seriously. It’s clear from these initial compliance checks that there’s a need for strong federal enforcement of these important youth access restrictions.”

Hence the warning letters. If the FDA encounters a violation of the law, it, as a general rule, sends a notification prior to taking enforcement actions. Enforcement actions include “civil money penalties” that can compound to $10,000 per store.

“To me, those are meaningful and effective methods of enforcement,” University of North Carolina tobacco researcher Joseph Lee told Scienceline.

Consumers who witness sales of tobacco to minors are urged to report such cases to the FDA’s Potential Tobacco Product Violation Reporting Form.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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