FDA Touts Enforcement Efforts in Preventing Tobacco Sales to Minors

Issues 1,200 warning letters to retailers; industry group emphasizes high compliance rate

WASHINGTON -- About 1,200 retailers have received warning letters from the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) so far this year regarding the illegal sale of tobacco products to minors and other restricted tobacco-related activities, officials said in a conference call yesterday.

The result of 27,500 compliance checks done via federal contracts, identified offenders currently face re-inspection, after which they may have to pay fines starting at $250. If five violations occur within a 36-month period, retailers may receive a "no tobacco sale" order, said officials with the FDA.

A quick scan of 500 inspection reports on the FDA's website reveals a variety of retailers, including major-oil brands, national and regional chains and independents, as well as grocery stores, truckstops and restaurants.

"While we applaud the efforts made by many retail establishments to protect our kids, the fact that our nation's youth can walk into 1,200 retail locations and still obtain access to these deadly products is 1,200 too many," said Dr. Lawrence Deyton, director of the FDA's Center for Tobacco Products.

More than 96% of tobacco retailers inspected by federal contractors in 38 states and the District of Columbia were found to be in compliance with new tobacco regulations designed to prevent the sale of tobacco products to minors, emphasized Tom Briant, executive director of the National Association of Tobacco Outlets (NATO), concerning the results of the inspections. FDA-commissioned state officials have conducted more than 27,500 compliance checks at retail stores that sell tobacco products and found that the majority of stores were in compliance with federal laws regarding the sale and distribution of tobacco products to adults, he said.

"Tobacco retailers scored a high 'A' in the first year of inspections in the states that have FDA inspection programs," said Briant. "We are extremely pleased and will continue to do our part to help educate the few who are out of compliance. Our goal is to prevent sales of tobacco to underage youth."

Regarding tobacco sales to underaged customers, the inspections typically involve minors accompanied by an adult, said Ann Simoneau, director of the FDA's Office of Compliance & Enforcement. Those minors attempt to purchase tobacco products and inspectors watch if cashiers check ID cards for anyone 27 years old or younger.

But the inspection is broader than sales to minors, Simoneau said, noting how requirements for labeling and advertising of smokeless tobacco products, restrictions on the sale of individual cigarettes and rules against self-service displays and vending machines are also checked.

All retailers that have undergone an inspection--and the results of the audits--are listed on the FDA's website (click here).

While Deyton said they have not broken down the offenders by retailer class, identifying the businesses that pass and fail is a valued public service. "It's important for individual communities to know who is adhering to the law," he said. "And we're pleased to help consumers know which are in compliance."

Briant said that the industry's effort would be greatly enhanced if the FDA would use part of the $24 million budget allocated for compliance programs to issue letters of compliance to the tobacco retailers that pass compliance inspections.

"It would be a very significant, positive reinforcement tool for store management and store employees. Such letters would encourage retail managers and employees to maintain that high standard of managing and restricting tobacco sales only to those of legal age," he said.

Currently tobacco retailers have to check the FDA website on a regular basis to determine if their store or stores were inspected and to learn the outcome of the inspection.

"A letter of the type we recommend would be a source of pride and would reinforce to employees that they must continue to work hard and do their part to help keep tobacco out of the hands of minors," said Briant.

FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg also participated on the call, emphasizing the reasoning behind the inspections, namely the reduction of underage smoking. "It should worry every parent that 20% of U.S. high school students smoke cigarettes," she said. "For many young people, that first cigarette or use of smokeless tobacco will lead to a lifetime of addiction, and for many, serious disease."

President Obama signed the Family Smoking Prevention & Tobacco Control Act last year, giving the FDA authority to regulate tobacco products. One of the law's provisions permits the FDA to contract with states and territories to conduct compliance check inspections. So far this year, 38 states have entered contracts with the federal government for $24 million.

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