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Editor’s Note: During a two-week span in June, The Queens Courier sent out six of its summer interns to nearly 50 locations scattered all throughout the borough to find out if storeowners were following the proper protocol asking for ID. Stephen J. Bronner, Christina Heiser, Gregory Leporati, Adam Misch, Aliza Moorji and Marianna Nash reported this story. Pete Davis edited the stories.
With the price of a pack of cigarettes rising to nearly $9 last month, storeowners may be more likely to sell cigarettes to minors.
In an exclusive Queens Courier report, interns visited nearly 50 locations spread across the entire borough and found that 40 percent of the stores were willing to sell cigarettes to young people without checking for identification. New York State Law requires that cashiers ID any customers that appear to be under the age of 25. They can legally sell tobacco products to anyone aged 18 or over.
“Our laws and our regulations are only as good as they are enforced,” said City Councilmember Joseph Addabbo, who represents Howard Beach, an area where five out of 10 stores were willing to sell cigarettes without asking for ID.
In addition to cigarettes, Addabbo said it also might be time to look into whether ID requirements for other substances, especially alcohol, are also being relaxed.
Anthony Morreale, a 20-year-old senior at St. John’s University, has been smoking since he was 19. He currently smokes about two packs per week, and often buys cigarettes in Queens during the school year.
“I’m not usually carded in Queens, but I’m typically not carded at most places, anywhere,” said the St. John’s senior who lives in Long Island.
Stores that do not ID minors run the risk of incurring a $4,000 fine and losing their license to sell both cigarettes and lottery tickets if they receive multiple violations.
Although the fines and penalties are steep, many storeowners do not seem deterred by these penalties or believe authorities will actually bust them.
Assemblymember Jose Peralta, who represents Jackson Heights, believes that the enforcement of current tobacco laws needs to be improved in order to combat the sale of cigarettes to minors.
“It all comes down to the enforcement,” Peralta said. “That’s where government pays the price, because we fund many important mandates, but many times when it comes to the enforcement level, we fall short.”
The city’s Department of Consumer Affairs (DCA) is the organization in charge of enforcing tobacco laws and frequently sends minors into convenience stores accompanied by two undercover DCA inspectors to test cashiers.
Jonathan Mintz, Commissioner of the DCA, believes that the increased price of cigarettes will make them “too expensive for kids,” and potentially result in lower cigarette consumption.
Mintz said that compliance with tobacco laws is “higher than it’s ever been” and hovers at around 90 percent, according to DCA findings.
“This is a public health issue,” Mintz said. “We take this really seriously.”
However, City Councilmember Leroy Comrie, who is the Chair of the Council’s Consumer Affairs Committee, said that the 40 percent of stores selling without checking ID concerned him and recommended a stronger enforcement campaign to address the issue.
“The Department of Consumer Affairs has been understaffed for a while now and that needs to be addressed,” he said.
However, 60 percent of the stores that The Courier visited did properly check for identification.
Kenny Patel, a cashier at the Cross Bay Hallmark in Howard Beach, always IDs his customers and said the penalties are strict enough to deter him from selling to minors.
“I can’t afford to lose my license and lottery,” he said. “If you’re under 18, there’s no way I’m going to sell to you. It’s the law.”
Meanwhile, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) believes that the issue of youth smoking - and smoking in general - has been addressed properly.
According to Sarah B. Perl, Assistant Commissioner of the Bureau of Tobacco Control, at the DOHMN the number of Queens high school students who smoke decreased from 13 percent in 2006 to only 10.5 percent in 2007.
“The reality is, there are many less youth smokers,” Perl said. “All of our efforts have proven enormously effective.”
One in every four New York City high school students was a smoker in 1997, and now, a decade later, one in 12 smokes, according to Perl.
The Department of Health has been running an awareness campaign since 2006 that includes television commercials and other advertisements. Additionally, five times since 2003 the Department has handed out free nicotine patches to smokers in convenience stores throughout the city.
“People want to quit,” Perl said. “There are currently more former smokers in New York than current ones.”
While Perl agreed that stores selling cigarettes to minors are “never a good thing,” she said that the high price of cigarettes should serve as a deterrent for all people to quit smoking.
“We have a $4.25 tax on cigarettes, and that is the highest in the country,” Perl said. “We’re trying to make sure those prices stay high.”
However, Addabbo said that the high prices coupled with the overall poor state of the economy might actually serve as an impetus for more storeowners to sell to minors.
“When the economy is sluggish and not responding well, any store will look to alternative ways to make money,” he said.
Bharat Patel, the manager of Shiv Convenience Store in Jamaica, said that he has noticed a decrease in cigarette sales after the price increase, but still upholds a strict policy of carding all new customers.
“New people, I always do it,” Patel said. “If you come every day, I don’t card.”