Audrey Love

It’s a problem organizations, initiatives and parents have been trying to tackle for decades — keeping kids off drugs and tobacco. Truth Initiative commercials urge, “We can be the generation to end smoking,” and many schools support the D.A.R.E. program. Anti-drug and tobacco messages have arguably saturated the market more than the “smoking is cool” narrative brought to you by the Marlboro Man or Joe Camel in years past.

Yet Oregon state public health officials say the rate of tobacco sales to underage consumers has slightly increased since the state raised the age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21 years old.

The new minimum age law, known as Tobacco 21, went into effect Jan. 1, making Oregon the fifth state in the nation to do so, following Hawaii, California, New Jersey and Maine. This year Massachusetts also followed suit. At least 340 other “localities,” such as New York City, San Antonio and Chicago also enforce this rule, according to

“Selling tobacco to people under 21 years old is illegal, but the data show that nearly one out of every five tobacco retailers in Oregon still sells to people under the legal age,” said Tom Jeanne, deputy state health
officer at the Oregon Health Authority Public Health Division. “Tobacco remains the number one preventable cause of death and disability and kills nearly 8,000 people in Oregon each year.”

In inspections conducted by the OHA earlier this year, nearly one in three randomly selected tobacco retailers in Union County were caught selling tobacco to people younger than 21. Out of 10 total inspections, a total of three sales were made in Elgin, Island City and Union for either cigarettes or cigarillos, according to OHA’s data.

In OHA inspections statewide, retailers sold 18.3 percent of the time. Compared to similar inspections last year, when the minimum age was still 18, violations were at 16 percent, based on OHA data. Oregon results also included e-cigarette attempts, while Union County numbers did not; chewing tobacco also wasn’t included in sale attempts county and statewide.

State law requires retailers post signs stating customers younger than 21 cannot purchase tobacco, according to OHA, and those that are caught selling tobacco face a fine of up to $500 for the first and second violations and up to $1,000 for the third and subsequent violations.

Attempts to curb this issue have taken place in Union County since the mid-1990s in the form of the Union County Safe Communities Coalition, a community effort made up of individuals and local organizations to reduce and prevent youth substance use. Through a Drug-Free Communities grant, of which UCSCC is in year seven of a 10-year cycle of funding, the coalition is able to focus its efforts on three substances: alcohol, marijuana and tobacco.

“A lot of different organizations are involved in the coalition. It’s kind of exciting to see them all come together to work for a common goal,” said coalition coordinator Robin Wortman. “No one wants to see kids using substances we know impacts (them negatively). We know it impacts their brain development. Any usage can make it so that they’re more susceptible to addiction, (and they are) more likely to become addicted if they start using young. That’s one of the main reasons we work on prevention.”

One of UCSCC’s prevention efforts includes keeping tobacco retailers in check through the Reward and Reminder program. Implemented by the organization’s youth council, which is composed of local high school students, the program conducts its own inspections at least six times a year, eventually hitting all 26 tobacco retailers in the county.

“It’s another opportunity to remind tobacco retailers to check ID,” Wortman said. “Our youth council members go in and request some sort of tobacco product they believe is commonly used by their peers, just to see if the clerk checks for ID.”

See more in Friday's edition of The Observer.