Philly health department busts 149 tobacco retailers for selling to kids

Colorful displays such as this can be alluring to young people, but selling tobacco products to minors is
illegal in Philadelphia – don’t do it!
Colorful displays such as this can be alluring to young people, but selling tobacco products to minors is illegal in Philadelphia – don’t do it!

The city health department will not renew tobacco sale permits for 149 retailers throughout Philadelphia that sold cigarettes to minors, 12 of these businesses are located in Southwest Philadelphia. All the retailers whose permits will be revoked sold to minors at least three times over the past two years. They represent 6% of the city’s roughly 2,600 tobacco retailers, which include restaurants, hookah bars, vape shops, laundromats, gas stations and convenience stores. Smoking led to an estimated 3,844 deaths in 2016, accounting for 28.7% of all deaths in the city, making it the leading cause of death in Philadelphia. Almost 80% of smokers nationwide report starting before they turned 18 years old. “Our concern is for the health of our children, and these stores have repeatedly been guilty of this violation,” Health Commissioner Tom Farley said.

In 2016, Philadelphia had the highest smoking rate of any major city in the country at 23%, and twice as many tobacco retailers per capita. To try to reduce those rates, the city approved regulations that capped the number of retailers in each planning district, and denied tobacco sales licenses to any retailer caught selling to minors more than three times in 24 months. The regulations went into effect the following year, and the city started counting violations in 2018. By the time licenses were up for renewal in January 2019, four stores had reached the threshold. This year, 149 reached it.

To catch violators, the city sends young mystery shoppers to retailers to try to buy cigarettes. The city partners with the nonprofit Health Promotion Council to recruit and pay teen shoppers between 15 and 17, all of whom attempt to buy cigarettes. The teens are accompanied by adult chaperones. The health department said tobacco retailers were made aware of the new regulations and their more drastic consequences immediately after they were approved, via a mailing in five different languages. An email reminder was also sent in spring 2019.

Farley, the city health commissioner, said of the retailers, “Every time they got a ticket, they got an education in person that if they continued to sell these killer products to children, they’re going to lose their sales privileges. I don’t think they deserve to continue to be allowed to sell. Most of the stores whose licenses will not be renewed are in low-income areas with high concentrations of Black and Latino residents. “I don’t think it’s fair that kids in low-income neighborhoods really should be getting that access to that killer product where we’re able to protect more of the kids in high-income neighborhoods,” Farley said. The retailers were warned every time they were caught selling to minors, he said. According to city data, tobacco retailer density per capita in low-income areas is 69% higher than in high- income areas. The smoking rate in Philadelphia is highest among Latinos, 1 in 3 of who smoke, according to city data.

If retailers that lose their licenses wait two years, they can apply for tobacco sales permits again. But since the 2017 regulations placed a cap on tobacco retailers in each city planning district, a store would be added to a waiting list if the cap in that district has already been reached.

Philly still has the highest smoking rate of any major city in the country, but the smoking rate reached an all-time low in 2019 at 19%. Smoking rates are also the lowest they’ve ever been among Philadelphia teens — 2% reported smoking in 2019, and 7% reported vaping. Philadelphia City Council recently banned all flavored vaping products and products with high nicotine concentrations from stores where minors are allowed to shop. Shortly afterward, the federal government also banned most flavored vaping products. Many advocates worry that the lack of availability of vape products will lead teens addicted to nicotine to turn to cigarettes instead.

Written By Nina Feldman , covers behavioral health for WHYY

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