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Council to discuss snuffing out city cigarette displays

By John Geluardi Daily Planet Correspondent
Tuesday October 24, 2000

The City Council will consider an ordinance tonight that would ban stores from displaying tobacco products in a manner that encourages minors to attempt to purchase or steal cigarettes.  

A study conducted by the city last February showed that despite state and city laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors, it still occurs with alarming frequency. The study showed that minors were able to purchase tobacco products in 33 percent of stores surveyed.  

“Study after study shows if you start young the more likely you are to form a lifelong habit,” said Fred Medrano, director of Health and Human Services. “This ordinance will further prevent the purchase or theft of cigarettes by underage folks.” 

The ordinance will require all sales of tobacco to be “vendor assisted,” which means a store clerk will have to physically hand the cigarettes to the customer. It would also prohibit displays that allow cigarette self service.  

According to a study commissioned by the City Council, minors are more likely to attempt to buy or steal cigarettes when they are within easy reach. It also showed that vendors are more likely to ask for age verification if they are required to retrieve tobacco products from a secured location behind the counter and physically hand items to customers. 

One store that will be affected by the new ordinance is Fast Mart on University Avenue near Shattuck. The small store stocks candy, soda pop and other items that would attract the large numbers of high school students who walk down the street after classes. But among the candy and gum near the counter is a large display of cigarettes that dominates the front of the store. The display is not designed for self service but it is within easy reach of customers. 

The manager of the store refused to comment about the new ordinance. 

Marcia Brown-Machen, the Berkeley’s Tobacco Prevention Program director, said that most Berkeley merchants are in favor of the ordinance. 

President of the University Avenue Merchants Association, Kirtal Khanna said he would strongly support any ordinance that would reduce smoking among minors or adults. He said he couldn’t speak for the entire association but was reasonably sure other members would agree with him.  

Khanna owns the Bazaar of India on University Avenue, a retail store that sells handcrafts, books and sundries. “My personal opinion is that smoking is terrible,” said Khanna who used to sell Indian cigarettes but took them off the shelves five years ago. 

Brown-Machen said her department sent out 140 letters last June to tobacco retailers alerting them about the proposed ordinance and not one store owner responded negatively.  

She added that a survey completed last year showed that out of 95 tobacco retailers only 19 had tobacco displays customers could reach. 

Brown-Machen said this ordinance might not have a huge impact on teen smoking but there is evidence that a combination of factors is causing reduced smoking among young people. “Non-smoking campaigns, state laws, city ordinances and various other community programs are having an effect,” she said. 

All the states that passed cigarette tax rate increases have shown a reduction in smoking. In fact, California now has the lowest tobacco-use rate in the United States. 

Brown-Machen said another barometer is that the tobacco companies now spend 10 times more in advertising since Californians passed Proposition 99, the Tobacco Tax and Health Protection Act of 1988, a state law that adds 25 cents tax on each package of cigarettes. The revenue goes to smoking prevention and research. 

The Berkeley Tobacco Prevention Program currently has a variety of programs designed to reduce underage smoking. One is Youth Purchase Surveys, in which trained minors, under the supervision of the Berkeley Police Department, attempt to purchase cigarettes from tobacco retailers. Responsible store clerks who refuse to sell to minors can be rewarded with a certificate signed by the mayor. Those who do sell cigarettes to minors are cited on the spot and fined $200 for the first offense. Fines increase with each additional offense. 

There is also an advertising campaign in the Yellow Pages of the UC Berkeley phone directory, which features “Debbie” a woman who communicates through a stoma, a hole at the base of the throat through which she breaths and speaks since having her larynx removed due smoking related cancer.