Teens help stop minor sales

Published 12:00 am Friday, April 9, 2004

You won’t find this employment advertisement in the classifieds: “Wanted: People between the ages of 14-17 who don’t look any older than their age. Ideal candidates actually will look younger than their age.”

Last month, Demopolis Police reported three separate arrests for minors in possession of tobacco. Actually, according to acting Police Chief Jeff Manuel, the arrests came after minors were sold tobacco products by local stores. And the charges were filed against store clerks who wrongfully sold the tobacco to people under the age of 19.

“It was part of an operation we did with the ABC,” Manuel said. “We found stores that were selling to minors, and misdemeanor charges were filed against the clerks.”

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The ABC operation that passed through Demopolis wasn’t just a day-long check up, either.

Capt. Phillip Calvert, assistant director of enforcement for the ABC Board, said an on-going compliance program throughout the state has yielded a number of arrests and an above-average percentage of stores that sell tobacco to minors.

“On a state level, we like to keep the sell rate under 10 percent,” Calvert said of the ABC’s tobacco compliance program. “Right now, statewide, we’re at 12.67 percent.”

In the five-county region, Hale and Perry counties had a perfect percentage of tobacco sales to minors. During the ABC’s operation, no stores in Hale or Perry sold tobacco to minors. Marengo followed the state trend where agents found a 13-percent sell rate. In a sampling of Greene County stores, the ABC found that youngsters have a 25-percent chance of purchasing tobacco. And Sumter County topped the region — and state — in sales to minors with 33 percent.

Calvert was quick to clarify exactly how a high percentage is found in places like Sumter County.

“With smaller counties, you have fewer stores that sell tobacco,” he said. “And in Sumter, we completed just three checks. At one of those stores, a minor was allowed to purchase tobacco, which accounted for such a high number.”

Finding Good Help

While monitoring the habits of tobacco vendors is important to state officials, the most interesting aspect of the ABC’s operation is the manner in which they check compliance.

“We actually recruit minors to work with us,” Calvert said. “For tobacco, we look for 14- through 17-year-olds. For alcohol, we want 16- through 19-year-olds.”

And in an effort to keep stores from feeling “entrapped,” the ABC prefers finding teenagers who look “no older than their age, and preferably younger than their age,” Calvert said.

“We want to give stores the benefit of the doubt,” he said. “We don’t want them to get a sense of being entrapped.”

In choosing youngsters who look even younger, Calvert said the process goes far beyond pulling a kid off the corner and sending him into a convenience store with a few bucks.

“The Alabama Supreme Court issued a ruling with a number of suggestions for us to follow,” Calvert said. “One of the first things we do is get a written agreement with the kids, and we get the parents’ approval to use them.”

Next, the ABC takes a picture of the undercover teen and sends it to ABC’s headquarters in Montgomery.

“Based on the photographs, each one is either approved or not approved,” he said. “We don’t want any possibility that the clerk will be confused. We want [the teenagers] to look young.”

More importantly for the teen-agers hired to work, the ABC pays its young “employees” $6-an-hour, according to Calvert.

The Sting

Based on the circumstances and the location of the tobacco vendors, Calvert said the ABC has two main goals during operations like the recent one in this region.

“The safety of the young people is our first concern,” he said. “We don’t want to send them into a dangerous situation.”

When the ABC, including the teen-aged recruit, begins a sting, Calvert said agents evaluate situations on an individual basis before determining the method of the sting.

“Sometimes, the agents will stand outside and wait for the kid to come back,” he said. “Other times, if we think the kid could be in some kind of danger from going inside, the agent will go in, as well. Most of that is just a safety issue.”

The second obvious purpose of the ABC operation is to ensure tobacco vendors are abiding by the law.

If a young person is sold tobacco, the clerk is arrested on criminal charges immediately. However, Calvert said there are no hand-cuffs involved in the arrest.

“Normally, we’ll just write them a ticket and they’ll have to appear in court,” he said.

The misdemeanor charge carries a fine of anywhere from $50 to $500, Calvert said, and the actual store pays a price, as well.

“We also file an administrative charge against the license holder,” he said.

Based on the number of charges filed against a tobacco vendor, Calvert said there are options for first-time offenders.

“The licensee has the opportunity to receive training on what to look for,” he said. Subsequent offenses carry stiffer penalties.

With the ABC’s operation throughout Alabama, Calvert said his department is pleased with the overall compliance with state law. He also said trends in rural areas differ from those in bigger cities.

“It really varies with tobacco and alcohol,” he said. “In the larger metro areas, the alcohol rate is a little higher because stores are bombarded with kids trying to buy. And in some rural counties, the tobacco rate is pretty high.”