A broad sting operation in October found that three of 23 city businesses licensed to sell tobacco in the county sold the product to underage customers.
The sting, the first in 10 years, used underage decoys to attempt to buy tobacco products at each of the businesses. It’s illegal to sell tobacco to anyone under 21 years old.
City code enforcement officers, members of San Benito County Public Health Services and the decoys ages 18 to 20 carried out the surprise sweep on Oct. 12.
State legislators in 2016 raised the age to buy tobacco legally from 18 to 21. In June and July of this year San Benito County tobacco retailers were reminded of the law and alerted that stings were a possibility.
During the Oct. 12 sweep, decoys showed identification if asked for it. If clerks didn’t seek proof of age but made the sale, a citation was issued.
Citations were issued to Diaz Liquors, Home Town Gasoline and Shop and Save Gas and Retail Market.
"No attempt to nail scofflaws occurred in the past decade because of staffing issues and timing," said Samela Perez, public information officer for San Benito County Public Health Services.
“The results of this survey clearly show that there needs to be more education provided to retailers on the consequences of selling tobacco to underage customers and there have to be consistent compliance checks,” Perez said. “This is a much bigger problem than just tobacco. If retailers are not checking ID, there is a chance they could also sell other products such as alcohol to underage customers. We all need to look out for the health and well-being of our young community members.”
The penalty for selling tobacco products to an underage customer -- a misdemeanor -- is a fine of up to $200 for the first offense, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third.
Hollister businesses pay $269 annually for a license to sell tobacco. Among the retailers are gasoline stations, liquor stores, convenience outlets, smoke shops and supermarkets.
“In order to prevent youth tobacco use, comprehensive regulations that reduce the affordability and accessibility of tobacco products must be enforced,” county Public Health Officer, Dr. Gail Newel, said in a release. “I commend our policy makers for passing a strict retail license ordinance and our local law enforcement agency for making tobacco compliance operations a priority for our community.”
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