That Child is Someone’s Child: Illegal Tobacco Sales to Minors in Philadelphia

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Ryan Coffman, Tobacco Policy and Control Program Manager, Philadelphia Department of Public Health 

As the Tobacco Policy and Control Program Manager with the Philadelphia Department of Public Health (PDPH), I help patients from many backgrounds to quit smoking. Over the years, I have learned from my patients that loosies play an important role both in helping them to get hooked on cigarettes and in making it harder for them to quit. 

An overwhelming majority of the patients I counsel started smoking when they were teenagers. Often their first cigarette didn’t come from an older brother or sister or from their mom’s purse. That cigarette was sold to them illegally by their local tobacco retailer. The loosies they were sold as teens eventually led them to become daily smokers, which led to their serious medical issues.  

When a patient is trying to quit, I ask them how many cigarettes they smoke daily. If they are smoking a few cigarettes, I ask if they are trying to cut down by “stretching their pack” or if they’re buying loosies. Often the patient is buying loosies, so I ask, “If loosies were no longer available, would you still be smoking?” To date, I have never had a patient trying to quit say they’d still be smoking if there were no loosies. Loosies not only hook our kids into smoking, but they keep adults smoking who would otherwise quit.    

An assortment of tobacco products that were illegally sold to minors

This illegal sale of tobacco products to our children and to adults who are trying to quit is not a convenience or service, such as breaking a dollar or letting a customer “get you next time” if they come up short when buying a hoagie. Illegal loosie sales harm our youth, our families and our communities and are a serious problem in Philadelphia, where smoking is the leading killer.  These harms are not the same across all neighborhoods. Last month, PDPH revoked tobacco sales privileges for 149 tobacco retailers who had been caught selling to children between three and seven times over two years. Most of these stores were in low-income neighborhoods throughout the city. The same neighborhoods that are already hurting from higher rates of tobacco use and tobacco-related deaths also have higher rates of illegal tobacco sales.

These laws are not in place to inconvenience tobacco retailers, but to protect the residents of our city. Ultimately, the child who buys a loosie that could start a lifetime of nicotine addiction is someone’s child, and we all have an interest in protecting our city’s children.   

If this concerns you, there is a quick and effective way that you can help your community to be safer and healthier. I would like to strongly encourage all readers to hold tobacco retailers accountable by reporting illegal sales. You can text “Smoke” to 474747, call 1-888-99-SMOKE or visit http://smokefreephilly.org/report-illegal-activity/

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