Many Detroit-area stores illegally sell cigarettes to minors

January 8, 2007

ANN ARBOR—While tobacco companies and their advertisers are under fire from anti-smoking groups for encouraging teens to light up, most local stores that carry cigarettes do little to deter the habit, according to a University of Michigan researcher.

In a study conducted last fall with the Detroit Urban League, John M. Wallace, U-M assistant professor of social work, found that 75 percent of some 300 Wayne County convenience stores, grocery stores, gas stations and pharmacies sold cigarettes to minority youth ages 14-17.

“Despite the fact that it is illegal to sell cigarettes to minors, tobacco access laws are seldom enforced,” Wallace says. “As a result, the vast majority of young people who smoke purchase their own cigarettes over the counter from retail merchants.”

According to the study, 93 percent of retail clerks failed to ask minors for identification, 80 percent did not ask their age, and 70 percent of stores did not display required “no tobacco sales to minors” signs.

Not surprising, Wallace says, is that none of the clerks who asked for I.D. sold cigarettes to teens and only 7 percent of the clerks who asked about age sold them to minors anyway (compared with 90 percent who did not ask at all. He adds that male clerks (81 percent) were more likely than females (66 percent) to sell cigarettes to youth, and that clerks under 40 sold tobacco more often to teens than older store employees.

Wallace notes that a similar study conducted in 1994 found that 58 percent of area retail outlets sold cigarettes to minors. “Given this increase in cigarette sales to minors between 1994 and 1995, it appears that simply educating retailers about the law against the sale of cigarettes to minors is an insufficient strategy by which to decrease youth access to tobacco products,” he says.

Wallace suggests that clerks be trained to ask for I.D. of anyone trying to buy cigarettes who looks younger than 25, and that stores prominently post the required “no sales to minors” signs and place all tobacco products behind the counter.

In addition, he calls for renewed efforts to inform retail associations about the problem of cigarette sales to minors, and recommends fining retailers who illegally sell tobacco products to youth.

Wallace’s study is the first collaborative effort in the Detroit Urban League/University of Michigan Urban Research Series, designed to “disseminate research findings relevant to the mental, physical, social, economic and spiritual health and well-being of African Americans.”

His colleagues on the study included Amos O. Aduroja, director of the Detroit Health Department’s Bureau of Substance Abuse, and U-M researchers David R. Williams and Michelle Harris- Reid.

University of Michigan