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Underage San Mateo County teens able to buy tobacco at one in five stores tested

 | Published on 6/18/2010


DALY CITY — An undercover effort by teen volunteers found that one in five tobacco sellers in Daly City and South San Francisco sold cigarettes to minors without checking their ages, the teens announced Friday.

The teens, part of local substance abuse nonprofit Asian American Recovery Services, or AARS, chose 48 stores at random in 2009. Cooperating with local law enforcement agencies, they tried to buy tobacco without providing identification, program supervisor Sarah Rodriguez'G said. A similar effort targeting 60 stores in 2006 yielded a higher successful buy rate — 25 percent.

"So the number's come down, which is good, but it's still a lot higher than the state average, which is about 13 percent," Rodriguez'G said. In areas with a higher average income level, such as Menlo Park, less than 10 percent of tested stores sold tobacco to underage teens, she added.

Seeking more to raise awareness of the issue than to penalize specific stores, AARS did not release the names of shops that sold tobacco to teens, though Rodriguez'G said that information would be available to the San Mateo County Sheriff's Office.

AARS offers service across San Mateo County, but the teens focused the sting in Daly City and South San Francisco because they felt access was highest there, due to a lower average income and a proliferation of stores that sell tobacco, said DJ Montanto, a 16-year-old senior at Daly City's Westmoor High School.

"It's never been a problem in my life, but I'm fearful for the younger generation," Montano said. "And I've had friends and family who have that kind of trouble. Since eighth grade, I've seen kids with abuse problems. They're still children, and they're already ruining their bodies. It hits hard for me."

Blanca Soza, an 18-year-old Daly City resident and AARS member, said teen drinking and smoking was a huge problem at Jefferson High School, from which she recently graduated.

"Our goal is to get the laws better enforced," Soza said. To fund that extra enforcement, she said, the county fees for stores to sell tobacco need to be raised. Currently, they're $108; AARS is hoping to get that number increased to $300.

Daly City police Sgt. David Mackriss said that without more funding, the department likely wouldn't be able to increase its enforcement of tobacco laws.

"We'd have to put together a special team, a special time," Mackriss said. "We're already in the process of cutting resources. For programs like that, we rely on funding obtained through grants. It's kind of akin to special DUI enforcement."

One goal of increasing county fees for selling tobacco, Soza said, would be to provide some of those extra funds. She said she hopes a fee increase won't be too difficult to achieve because, while doing some public opinion outreach for AARS, she found that 94 percent of people polled believed it's easy for teens to acquire tobacco.

AARS next plans to work on alcohol issues, the teens said, and volunteers are spending part of the summer taking pictures of the world around them, focusing both on positive images such as activity centers and on negative images such as cigarette billboards and beer bottles discarded in the street.

For more information, call AARS at 650-243-4888 or go to www.aars-inc.org.