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Horne: Store clerks too often fail to prohibit tobacco sales to minors

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PHOENIX – Teenagers working with state investigators were able to purchase tobacco at 14.6 percent of the establishments they visited over a year, Attorney General Tom Horne said Wednesday.

“Clearly we need to redouble our efforts to get the message to clerks that they must not sell tobacco to kids,” Horne said.

Of 1,979 stores visited during fiscal 2011 as part of a program dubbed Counterstrike, 288 sold tobacco to the underage volunteers, he said.

The program is a collaboration of Horne’s office and the Arizona Department of Health Services.

It’s illegal in Arizona to sell tobacco products to those under 18. Store clerks who do so are subject to a fine of up to $300.

“Most of these people knew what they’re doing,” said Bertha Adame, one of three task force volunteers who joined Horne at a news conference. “They weren’t just mom-and-pop shops.”

Adame, who at age 18 is now too old for the task force, said she signed on because she considers smoking a nasty habit that traps people.

“Because I knew it was something that had to be stopped, I thought just by me doing it I would make a difference,” she said.

It was easier for the volunteers to purchase tobacco products in rural areas than metropolitan areas, Horne said, with Apache, Coconino, Gila, Graham, Greenlee, La Paz, Navajo and Pinal garnering failure rates of 25 percent or higher. Maricopa and Pima counties reflect the statewide average.

Horne said the results suggest a need to store employees in rural areas.

“I’m very passionate about making sure at least that if people start smoking they do it as grown-ups and not as kids when they have less discretion and less ability to decide what’s really good for them, he said.

Horne also unveiled a 30-second public service announcement showing store clerks denying tobacco products to minors and warning of the fine clerks could face.

“This is a very important program, and I want to see us do a good job of bringing the failure rate as close to zero as we possibly can,” he said.