Beginning this week, the Tobacco Control and Prevention team at Multnomah County will employ a new tool in the fight against illegal nicotine sales.
Teens ages 18 and 19 will pair up with county inspectors and head out to shops with a history of selling tobacco to minors and those close to schools. They’ll attempt to buy nicotine products such as cigarettes, cigarillos and e-cigarettes while Multnomah County inspectors stand by to witness any illegal sales.
“We’ll be able to catch them if they’re doing it wrong and hopefully they’ll learn and continue to stay within the law,” one youth inspector, a student at Portland State University, said.
The prevention team began planning the initiative last year, as county officials considered passing an ordinance to raise the legal smoking age to 21. Then the state legislature took up the cause and raised the age statewide. Oregon joins four other states, 17 counties and more than 200 cities across the country in raising the lawful age to purchase tobacco. Any retailer who to sells to a person under 21 in Oregon could face a $500 fine. A second offense could cost a store its tobacco retail license.
The goal is to educate retailers and the community, but also hold repeat offenders accountable. For years, federal surveys showed Multnomah County had one of the highest rates of illegal sales to youth under 18 in the nation.
“We’re taking this very seriously,” said Kari McFarlan, supervisor for the county’s Tobacco Control and Prevention Program.
The youth-inspection teams will begin with a list of 300 licensed tobacco retailers situated within 1,000 feet of a school or those that already have a history of illegal tobacco sales. But youth caught smoking will not face legal trouble.
“Our concern is the retailers who sold to these young adults, that’s a really important one for us,” McFarlan said. “We want all our retailers to do the right thing and comply with the law so that we can protect our kids from these harmful products."
Research suggests that more than one in five 11th graders use a nicotine product, and that rates are highest among youth of color and LGBTQ youth. Under the new law, teens ages 15 to 17 will have the hardest time trying to buy nicotine products because nearly half have been obtaining cigarettes and vape supplies from friends who had turned 18.Nearly 1,700 people ages 18-20 smoke in Multnomah County. The new rules allow smokers 18 and older to still buy nicotine replacement patches and gum.
Health insurance companies are required to provide people with nicotine replacements such as patches and gum, tools proven to help people stop smoking for good. Young smokers can also download the quitStart phone app, reach out to live phone support or sign up for text support.
A student at Portland Community College, who joins the county’ inspector team this week, said he suspects most smokers 18-to-20 will find ways around the rules. He has friends who are angry about the new law, and they’re looking for stores to sell to them or people 21 and older who can legally buy.
“People are going to keep doing it and keep doing it,” the youth inspector said. “I’ve already seen people on social media, saying ‘this store doesn’t ID.’ That’s not cool. Stores need to stop.”
The best outcome he can envision is that stores follow the rules, and keep young people from starting smoking in the first place.
People who have questions about tobacco retail inspections can call Multnomah County Environmental Health Services at 503-988-4163 or email firstname.lastname@example.org