Their mission is to empower and band youth together in the fight against the big tobacco movement.
Students Working Against Tobacco is the state’s campaign to promote healthy and tobacco-free living among teenagers, while monitoring what tobacco companies and retailers sell in their communities.
One SWAT program is the Reward Reminder Visits, through which they send adults and minors into a community to educate retailers about federal and state statutes that govern youth access to cigarette and smokeless tobacco products.
Tahlequah SWAT Coordinator Sarah Grimes-Troutt and other SWAT team members have been dropping by area convenience stores lately. They learned three of the 22 tobacco retailers they called on would have sold tobacco without confirming the buyer’s date of birth.
“We did it twice this year,” Grimes-Troutt said. “We originally had a target group that was a lot bigger than . These stores were targeted because they’ve sold in the past or they are close to a school or some other significant reason. So it’s not just because they’ve sold before. It may be that they’re the only gas station in the area.”
The Reward Reminder Visits are a part of SWAT’s “No Minor Issue” drive, which aims to reduce teen access to tobacco. According to SWAT’s website, 5,400 kids under age 18 become new daily smokers each year, while 21.7 percent of male high school students use smokeless tobacco. The site declares that “about 15 percent of high school students who smoke buy cigarettes at stores.”
“I like the [Reward Reminder Visit] program,” said Hit-N-Run 1 Stop owner Danny Reese, whose store was visited recently and was given a “Thank You” card for not selling to minors.
Hit-N-Run employee Heath Pennington said under-age kids shouldn’t be buying tobacco.
“I strongly agree with what they’re doing,” he said.
At the point of sale, the sales clerk will either receive the “Thank You” card for legal compliance in checking a buyer’s date of birth, or an “It’s Illegal To Sell Tobacco To Minors” card. The “It’s Illegal” card offers a brief reminder that “had that sale been witnessed by a law enforcement officer, you could have been fined.” The card also denotes statistical information on tobacco fatalities in Oklahoma and a second reminder that “three out of four current adult smokers in Oklahoma became addicted when they were teenagers.”
In 2004, the Legislature enacted the Prevention of Youth Access to Tobacco Act to provide muscle in the fight against selling to minors. The act holds store employees and owners responsible for the illegal sale of tobacco, including fines and store license suspension by the Oklahoma Tax Commission.
Tobacco retailers are given a neon orange sign that reads “It’s the law. We do not sell tobacco products to persons under 18 years of age.” They face a $50 fine if the sign is not visibly posted. The bottom of the sign also has a reminder that violations can deliver consequences for both the employee and the purchaser, which could be a buyer of legal age who is providing tobacco to a minor. The sign lists the number to the Oklahoma Alcoholic Beverage Laws Enforcement Commission to report violators.
Dano’s Convenience Store owner Tye Thomas praised the SWAT program and noted those making visits call upon every store that sells tobacco.
“I think there’s probably stores they don’t check, but I think it’s a good thing, so long as they’re not picking on people,” he said. “I commend them for doing their job and trying to keep kids away from tobacco and alcohol. The big thing is when they have high school football games. They need to go through the bleachers and see who’s smoking. Kids get tobacco or beer somehow and have these at high school games. It’s a two-sided street I’ve never liked. Let’s do our job 100 percent – but unfortunately, it’s America, and nobody does their job 100 percent.”
Grimes-Troutt said stores that would have made the sale are given a packet of information to increase awareness of the law, along with helpful reminders when at the cash register.
“We suggest working with the ABLE Commission and give a packet of information to the manager for the clerks to become familiar with,” she said. “We do supply information they can learn when needing to determine if a student is of age or is underage. When we go out, we try to educate the clerk to check the ID.”
Louise Micolites, who works for the state health department program called Oklahoma Turning Point, made compliance visits for tobacco and alcohol when she worked with the Bill Willis Community Mental Health Center. She said the goal remains the same: developing a healthier community while protecting members from second-hand smoke and other harmful effects from using tobacco or other harmful substances.
The store visits are mandated by grants that fund projects like the Communities of Excellence in Tobacco Control and SWAT, she said.
“It was a non-punitive way to reinforce the idea that we need to make sure that [underage individuals] can’t just walk in and buy it,” Micolites said. “In my personal experience, there’s so much turnover with staff at convenience stores. You just about get a different clerk every time you go. What I can tell you is that 99 percent of the clerks really, really do care and don’t want to sell to kids, but a lot of times they don’t know to look at the license to see if the customer’s a certain age. Sometimes they get a long line and get nervous and they don’t want to inconvenience anybody.”
Micolites’ work with Turning Point keeps her abreast of what tobacco companies are producing to counterattack health campaigns. She noted there are new forms of tobacco on the market.
“The program really wants the public to understand the deceitfulness of tobacco companies,” she said. “They want to protect their profit margins and have come to diversify and create other things [to use when in area restricting tobacco use].”
Micolites said “snus” are now emerging in the area.
“They’re tiny little tea bags with nicotine in it. It’s spitless and you just swallow it,” she said. “If you remember the Listerine breath strips, they have one that’s for tobacco. They’ve come up with all of these ways to get your nicotine so you can hide it or just get your fix. They even have something that looks like a toothpick. It dissolves in your mouth. The one that really bothers me is something called ‘orbs.- They look like Tic-Tacs. They’re really dangerous and kids could mistake them for Tic-Tacs and could overdose on nicotine.”
Hulbert Super Stop Store Manager Anita Leonard said the store does not sell to students who are of legal age during school hours as one way to help control youth access to tobacco.
“As long as school is going, we don’t sell them [to a student] if you’re 18 or not,” she said. “We don’t judge anybody. Just don’t buy for the kids. That’s all we ask.”
The Barn employee Linda Studie said her daughter, Ashley, was working the cash register when SWAT made its visit to the Park Hill convenience store.
“That was the second time they’ve been here. She handed my daughter a [Thank You] card,” Studie said. “It does keep us aware. You get busy, but you just have to be careful. We have [the legal age prompts for clerks] on our counter and on the door.”
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