Tobacco Fails

It seems to be easier for minors to get their hands on it these days.

According to the Washington State Department of Health, the number of retailers illegally selling tobacco to kids has risen to its highest mark in more than a decade—roughly 16 percent in 2012. This figure, calculated yearly, is based on random compliance checks carried out by local health agencies and the state Liquor Control Board from January to June. What's the deal?

At least in part, think of it as just one more crappy side effect of a struggling economy. Washington State Health Department Office of Communications Manager Tim Church says that roughly 600 compliance checks were conducted in the first half of 2012. The finding of 16 percent represents a significant jump—up from 11 percent in 2011 and 10 percent in 2010, according to state Health Department numbers.

"This is unacceptable. Our young people should not have access to these deadly tobacco products," said Secretary of Health Mary Selecky in a press release distributed last Wednesday.

Church is quick to note that compliance rates tend to fluctuate each year, and the latest figures may represent an anomaly rather than a trend. But he says the spike—which probably has many contributing factors—is almost certainly connected to the faltering economy. Not only are pinched retailers more willing to risk fines if it means making an extra buck, but the money Washington funnels toward tobacco prevention and education programs has all but dried up since the economic crapfest of 2008: The Health Department has had to ax its retailer tobacco-education efforts, and the department's school-based anti-tobacco education programs have also lost funding.

Church says that in the boom times for the state's anti-tobacco efforts, Washington spent $26.5 million on efforts to reduce tobacco use. Since 2008–2009, however, Church says that funding has been cut "little by little" to next to nothing. These days, he says, Washington scrapes its pockets for about $1 million in anti-tobacco spending, all of it going toward the Department of Health's newly reinstated tobacco quit line. And even this spending is authorized only through the end of the year: "Literally all of that money has been cut now," Church said.

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