You would think with cigarettes at $3.50 a pack that teens wouldn’t be consumers in that market. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

In April of this year, the Department of Consumer Affairs started their “Summer Smoke Out” campaign designed to address the growing problem of teen smoking by stopping it at its root: tobacco store owners illegally selling to minors.

With the help of a New York State Department of Health $7,400,000 grant, The Department of Consumer Affairs hired about a hundred teenagers to work undercover for them. They took part in a six-month investigation of 7,100 stores. The investigation was geared towards identifying store owners who sell cigarettes to minors, and fining them.

Summer Smoke Out included inspection of over 8,000 stores. Unfortunately, the highest percentage of merchants who sold tobacco to minors was in Queens County with 34%. In all five boroughs, over $400,000 in fines were levied against store owners who were found in violation.

Twenty-nine merchants now face license revocation. It seems the store owners should be getting the message loud and clear that New York City will not put up with selling tobacco to our children.

Nationwide, over the past 20-25 years, smoking among adults has actually decreased by 50%. However, over the last six years alone, smoking among high school kids has increased by more than 26% and is at its highest since 1981. The Department of Consumer Affairs reports that 200 children start smoking every day, with the average child beginning at age 14.

Teens don’t seem to realize how dangerous and addictive smoking is. They think they look grown up and sophisticated, but the reality is that they are beginning a habit that they will fight for the rest of their lives. Moreover, adults don’t realize how widespread the problem of youth tobacco addiction is. Seventy-five percent of adults who smoke started before they turned 18, and research shows that the earlier someone starts smoking, the more difficult it is to quit. By the time they’re in the 8th grade, 8% of boys and girls admit to smoking a pack or more of cigarettes. By the tenth grade, this percentage doubles. These facts give us some of the most valid reasons to try to stop our children from lighting up.

One way to curtail this growing problem is to attempt to stop it at its source by targeting store owners. The Department of Consumer Affairs has taken a giant step towards improving the situation with their program. Of the six locations they inspected in Elmhurst and Middle Village alone, three were found in violation and were issued summonses.

And although adult smokers gripe and complain about the fact that cigarettes cost $3.50 a pack, the advantage is that they are a lot more expensive for teens whose only income may be an allowance, and perhaps a part time job. Hopefully, they won’t want to spend their money on cigarettes. (Perhaps, too, adults will think twice before plunking down so much money for cigarettes!)

The City Council has also passed Local Law 3 that seriously restricts advertisement of tobacco products. It is well known that tobacco companies specifically gear their advertisements towards teens.

In November, Mayor Giuliani submitted a bill to the City Council. Under this bill, a store owner found in violation would be fined $1,000 the first time and $2,000, as well as the suspension of his or her license, for the second offense. These fines would be imposed against the building, not the individual owner. Thus, the business could not be sold in order to avoid paying the fines.

The proposed bill also tightens licensing laws, and increases the fees for getting a license from $10 to $110. In addition, the bill also provides for refusal to issue a license for up to two years to a location that has lost its license.

The Department of Consumer Affairs’ undercover work resulted in a dramatic decline in the sale of tobacco to minors from 51% of the merchants to only 17%. Perhaps this trend will continue and our children can be saved.