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Columbia County prevention coordinators note concerns following Oregon Health Authority survey

PAMPLIN MEDIA GROUP FILE PHOTO - The Oregon Health Authority is now posting tobacco retailer inspection results to increase transparency about illegal tobacco sales and enforcement efforts. In Columbia County, the rate of retailers selling tobacco to underage customers was significantly lower than the statewide average, according to a new survey.

While the numbers might low, some local health officials are still concerned about youth access to tobacco products.

In late July, the Oregon Health Authority released a report showing an increase in retailers selling tobacco to underage people over the past year. On Jan. 1 this year, state law for tobacco sales changed, raising the legal age to purchase tobacco products from 18 to 21.

Across the state, retailer violation rates were reported at 18 percent, a slight increase from the 2017 rate of 16 percent, the OHA study showed. The data show that roughly one in five retailers is selling tobacco products to people under the age of 21.

In Columbia County, the retailer violation rate was significantly less at 6.7 percent. Data were collected from 15 different retailers in Clatskanie, Vernonia, Scappoose and St. Helens. Most of the test attempts were to obtain traditional cigarettes during the month of December, before the law change went into effect. One attempt to purchase an e-cigarette was successful at Walgreens in St. Helens.

For the first time, OHA is publishing tobacco inspection results in order to increase transparency about legal sales and enforcement efforts, OHA Communications Officer Delia Hernandez explained. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission publicly posts inspection results for alcohol and marijuana retail inspections, helping to align the same enforcement practices.

"Posting the results publicly encourages accountability for keeping tobacco out of the hands of underage persons," Hernandez stated in an email to the Spotlight. "Retail owners and managers have a responsibility to educate their staff on why preventing underage tobacco sales is important, and Oregon communities should know which stores have a record of selling tobacco illegally."

Claire Catt and Heather Oliver, prevention coordinators with the Public Health Foundation of Columbia County, explained that they are interested in seeing what long-term effects the change in tobacco law will have on rates of youth smoking.

"I think it'll be really exciting in the next few years to see what Tobacco 21 does, how the data changes based on that," Oliver said. "Yeah, data is always behind, but it'll be interesting to have some insight on that in a couple years."

Oliver noted that the sample size of the retailers inspected is relatively small and might not give a clear picture of how accessible tobacco products are to underage consumers.

"It's just hard to judge when there is such a small sample. You're only looking at 14 of the roughly 50 retailers in the county. I don't think it gives us a big enough picture of what's really happening in the county," Oliver said.

According to data from the 2016 Oregon Healthy Teen survey in Columbia County, 40 percent of high school juniors who reported using tobacco said they accessed it from a friend over the age of 18, while 19 percent purchased tobacco from a store. In the same survey, almost 70 percent of students reported that cigarettes were easy or very easy to get, a figure that has increased since 2010.

In addition to coordinating the youth education prevention program, Catt and Oliver also work directly with tobacco retailers to help educate employees about the Oregon tobacco law and ways to prevent underage access to tobacco products.

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