November 25, 2001 11:00 pm

By The Observer

Younger teens are discovering that finding a clerk in Union County who will sell them cigarettes is tough.

Thats the conclusion from the Oregon Department of Human Services. Spot-checks using 14- to 16-year-olds were conducted during 2001 involving every Oregon tobacco retailer known in every community.

Union County was one of only seven counties where fewer than 10 percent of the clerks agreed to sell tobacco products to young people. Other counties with low sales were Benton, Gilliam, Linn, Marion, Polk and Yamhill.

Three counties had sales rates of more than 30 percent: Curry, Douglas and Hood River.

The sales rates were compiled from almost 2,400 inspection visits statewide between November 2000 and July. Each visit included a teen-ager carrying valid identification accompanied by a retired state police officer.

The rate of sales in 2001 was 16.9 percent, down from the previous low of 18.3 in 1998-99.

Although we are meeting federal targets, our goal will continue to be zero sales, said Barbara Cimaglio, special assistant for child and adolescent health services with the Oregon Department of Human Services. But the fact that 83 percent of clerks said no sale means clerks are being alert and store owners are taking this seriously.

Sale of tobacco to a minor under age 18 is punishable by a fine of up to $600.

This is a high-priority health issue, Cimaglio said. Not only is tobacco the leading cause of preventable disease, disability and death, but we also know that most smokers start before they turn 18.