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Tobacco control enforcement turns serious

By Jeffrey Barg

On February 18, the Philadelphia Department of Licenses and Inspection (L & I) announced its first major enforcement of a 1995 law by issuing over 150 $100 tickets to tobacco retailers in the city who sold tobacco to minors. In addition, over 30 inspectors are checking all 3900 tobacco vendors in the city for compliance with the law.

Philadelphia has now entered the first rank of cities around the country taking proven measures to curb the growing problem of teenage tobacco addiction. L & I and Councilwoman Happy Fernandez, who introduced the law, got it passed and has been instrumental in getting it enforced, deserve tremendous credit.

While there will be many more battles with the tobacco interests for the health of our children, we have reached a significant milepost, which required sustained concerted effort on the part of many talented and dedicated people, first to get the law passed and then to get it enforced. Most of this effort has been organized by the local tobacco control coalition, TEACH.

TEACH’s development has been slow and steady, much like the passage and enforcement of the youth access to tobacco ordinance. But Philadelphia has had to come a long way to get to where we are today.

After the stunning success nine years ago of a quickly formed coalition designed to block the introduction of a new brand of cigarettes targeting African Americans, victories have been few and far between. Hearings in Philadelphia City Council on tobacco advertising on billboards were held with members of the smoking committee, including the staff of the main opponent of the advertising. Then-Mayor Wilson Goode was tied to tobacco giant Philip Morris, which was a major sponsor of the mayor’s literacy program. A few years later, just as TEACH was forming, the SEPTA board voted in favor of expanding outdoor advertising of tobacco by allowing such ads on the outside of their busses—the principal means of transportation to school for Philadelphia’s youth.

After reading of the SEPTA board decision, TEACH representatives testified before the board, met with the head of SEPTA, wrote letters of protest, but in the end the tobacco ads continued to proliferate, year in, year out. Now, SEPTA’s board has announced that it will no longer allow tobacco ads in its next advertising agreement, and TEACH is in the process of buying advertising space on SEPTA to support compliance with the youth access law.

Ordinance 732 prohibits the sale of tobacco to persons under 18 and requires photo ID of anyone appearing to be under 25-years-old. Age-of-sale warning signs must also be posted, and tobacco must be behind the counter or in a locked case or on the counter within three feet of an active register. And sale of loose cigarettes is prohibited.

The law took two years to get through City Council and a year to get enforced. During the past year, TEACH has initiated a merchant education initiative designed to inform tobacco merchants of the law and to help them come into compliance. Now, TEACH begins a three-pronged approach supporting compliance with the law. The campaign No ID, No Tobacco, No Kidding includes a multifaceted public information initiative geared towards merchants and local communities, compliance checks with teenage volunteers and a toll-free number—1-888-99SMOKE—for people to report store violations. Violations are reported to L & I, the enforcement agency for the law.

The public information initiative includes targeted mailings as well as television, radio, print and billboard advertising.

The compliance checks have been a key component of the effort at its various stages. The first compliance checks identified the need for the law to be passed. The compliance checks after the law was passed and after merchants were given information about the law showed that there was a need to aggressively enforce the law. And future compliance checks will show how effective these enforcement actions have been.

In the end, the most important ingredient has been the steadfast effort of TEACH’s staff and volunteers. Research has shown that despite the corrosive impact of tobacco money on the business community and the political process, well organized local communities can frequently defeat the tobacco interests. It’s nice to see that the system occasionally works and our children’s health is made a priority.

Jeffrey Barg is chairman of TEACH.

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