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One in four stores sold tobacco to minors

OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) _ About one in four Oklahoma stores illegally sold cigarettes in to people under age 18 in 2001 and compliance rates for this year are worse, officials said.

The 2001 compliance rate was 77.7 percent, while the January and February 2002 rate stands at 68 percent, the state Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission said.

``This certainly is not what we want. We want better compliance rates,'' ABLE Commission Director Gary Davidson said.

Oklahoma needs a compliance rate of at least 80 percent, Davidson said.

ABLE has agents who throughout the year oversee test buys to see which of Oklahoma's 5,600 retail stores sell cigarettes to minors. Only about 10 percent of stores are tested.

In 2001, 525 operations were conducted and 117 citations were issued. In the first two months of 2002, 156 retail outlets have been checked and 51 citations issued.

``This is not a pretty picture,'' said Ben Brown, deputy commissioner with the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse.

Brown said the federal government's goal is for no state to have a compliance rate lower than 80 percent.

Higher noncompliance rates could jeopardize about $7 million in federal funds the mental health department uses for substance abuse treatment programs, he said.

``We have a huge problem. Oklahoma is one of the worst states when it comes to selling cigarettes to kids,'' said Doug Matheny, director of the state Office of Tobacco Use Prevention. ``Too many stores don't take the compliance issue seriously enough.''

Many members of the Oklahoma Grocers Association participate in the ``We Card'' program to prevent cigarette sales to minors, said Jim Hoppers, OGA president.

Several supermarkets also place cigarettes behind the count at customer-service areas.

``We'll never be satisfied until there is a 100 percent compliance rate in Oklahoma,'' Hopper said.

The most important thing retailers can do is train their employees how to recognize fake identification, one of the biggest challenges in deterring young smokers.

Another way to improve compliance is to impose tougher penalties on store owners who violate the law, Methany said. Such legislation is under consideration by the Oklahoma Legislature.
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