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Funds could be used to keep teens from buying cigarettes

Oregon teens are going to find it a little harder to purchase cigarettes as a result of legislation passed unanimously Monday by the Oregon House and Senate.

Shortly before adjourning its 2012 session, legislators approved House Bill 4172 that authorizes retired Oregon State Police officers to conduct cigarette sale sting operations and issue citations to stores making illegal sales. The bill establishes a tobacco law enforcement fund and authorizes the Oregon Health Authority to apply for funding to pay the officers.

Last August, a Tribune investigation revealed that the state had stopped enforcing laws forbidding stores from selling tobacco products to anyone under 18 years of age. The Tribune story showed that state inspectors were complying with federal law by conducting sting operations with teen youths attempting to buy cigarettes, but that the state no longer cited stores where successful illegal buys were made. Instead, the stings were performed to comply with federal rules requiring each state to conduct surveys to determine the extent of their illegal buy problems.

Colleen Hermann-Franzen, spokeswoman for the Pacific Northwest chapter of the American Lung Association, which shepherded the bill through the Legislature, says 38 states and the District of Columbia receive funding from the Federal Food and Drug Administration specifically to help them enforce tobacco sales to minor laws. Oregon will be free to apply for those funds. Hermann-Franzen says the new enforcement program will cost the state nothing.

'We're thrilled by this,' she says. 'No one wants to see youth smoking, and this will help keep cigarettes out of the hands of Oregon youth.'

The Tribune story showed that sales to minors had increased in Oregon since the state stopped enforcing the law in 2009, and that Multnomah County had become one of the easiest counties in the nation for youths to buy tobacco. The national rate for teens able to illegally buy cigarettes from retailers is about 9 percent. Oregon's rate is about 19 percent.

That rate could cost Oregon money if it were to continue to rise.

Oregon is one of 13 states where retailers are not required to obtain licenses to sell tobacco. In states where retailers need to buy licenses, the fees are used to pay for more extensive inspection programs. Hermann-Franzen says the new law is at least a step in the right direction.

'This sends a strong message to tobacco retailers who were breaking the law that we take this law seriously,' she says.

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