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NC has sixth highest rate of underage tobacco sales violations, according to study

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North Carolina has the sixth highest rate of retailers violating laws aimed at curtailing the sale of tobacco products to underage youths, according to a federal study released Tuesday.

The state’s rate of 13.9 percent for federal fiscal year 2011-12, which ended Sept. 30, 2012, was above the national average of 9.1 percent, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reported. The program is part of the federal agency’s initiative on proactively preventing substance abuse and mental illness.

The rate represents the percentage of inspected retail outlets that illegally sold tobacco products to youths. The outlets are inspected in random, unannounced compliance checks. Inspections include vending machines.

It is not clear whether the report indicates that North Carolina is doing a better job of catching retailers who are violating the law, or the level of violation here is higher than in most other states.

“It’s good news that we’re making long-term progress at stopping illegal tobacco sales to kids,” said Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general. “But we’ve got more work to do to stop young people from ever starting to use tobacco products in the first place.”

The federal and state partnership has aimed to end illegal tobacco sales to minors since 1996. Every state was under the 20 percent violation level set by the program. The highest rate was 17.9 percent in Oregon, while the lowest rate was 1.8 percent in Maine and Mississippi.

However, the national violation rate rose slightly from 8.6 percent in fiscal 2010-11, which represented the lowest level in the program’s history.

The program, named for the late U.S. Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, is a federal mandate requiring states to document that the rate of tobacco sales to minors doesn’t exceed 20 percent. States that don’t meet that goal risk losing millions in federal funds for substance-abuse prevention and treatment services.

When the program began in 1996, the highest reported state retailer violation rate was 72.7 percent and the national average was 40.1 percent.

The agency said efforts to reduce retail violations are critical to efforts to curb underage smoking. According to a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report, 88 percent of adult smokers said they began by age 18 and 36.7 percent by age 14.

“These data suggest that if youth are prevented from smoking while they are young, they will be unlikely to begin smoking as adults,” the federal administration said.

In December, the annual Monitoring the Future study reported teenage smoking declined for the fifth consecutive year during 2012, falling under 18 percent for the first time.

The smoking rate was at 17.1 percent for 12th-graders, the lowest in the 38-year history of the study, which is conducted by University of Michigan researchers. The study measures tobacco use over a 30-day period.

By comparison, the smoking rate among 12th-graders was 29.5 percent in 2001. Nearly 20 percent of adult Americans smoke, according to the CDC.

John Spangler, a professor of family and community medicine at Wake Forest School of Medicine, said he is glad that overall progress is being made to curtail tobacco sales to underage youths.

“However, the government tests by having a single visit of a supervised minor purchasing small items at the store and asking for cigarettes. Some argue that this is inadequate,” Spangler said.

“For example, in Colorado, researchers found a high rate of sales to minors if the store was visited a second time. On the first visit, there was a 16 percent sales rate. On second visits, there was an additional 15 percent sales rate, with some overlap from the first visit.

“Combining the first and second visits, 25 percent of stores sold tobacco to youth,” Spangler said. “The federal government might want to consider a two-step approach.”