SALEM — State public health officials say that the rate of tobacco sales to underage consumers has increased slightly since the state raised the minimum age to buy tobacco from 18 to 21.
The Oregon Legislature passed the new minimum age law, known as Tobacco 21, last year. It went into effect Jan. 1, making Oregon the fifth state in the nation to do so.
The Oregon Health Authority says that in the first six months of 2018, 18 percent of attempts to buy tobacco products by minors — coordinated by the agency as inspections — were successful, according to findings published by OHA on Tuesday.
The rate of underage sales during similar inspections last year was 16 percent, when the minimum age was still 18, the agency’s public health division says.
“Selling tobacco to people under 21 years old is illegal, but these data show that nearly one out of every five tobacco retailers in Oregon still sells to people under the legal age,” said deputy state health officer Tom Jeanne in a prepared statement. “Tobacco remains the number one preventable cause of death and disability and kills nearly 8,000 people in Oregon each year.”
Tobacco use costs the state $2.5 billion in medical costs and lost productivity, state health officials say.
Retailers that sell tobacco to customers younger than 21 face a fine of up to $500 for the first and second violations of the law, and a fine of up to $1,000 for the third and subsequent violations.
The public health division is now publishing the names of the retailers who sell to minors for the first time, much like the OLCC publishes the names of drinking establishments and cannabis retailers who have been found to sell products to people younger than 21 through similar inspections, called “minor decoy operations” or “stings.”
In most cases during the OHA’s inspections, the underage customers attempted to buy cigarettes, but some also tried to purchase E-cigarettes and cigarillos.
Retailers are required by state law to post signs stating that customers younger than 21 cannot purchase tobacco, according to OHA. Those signs are available for download free of charge on the agency’s website. The state health agency says it began outreach efforts after the Tobacco 21 bill was signed into law in August.
OHA says it mailed letters to every known retailer selling tobacco products and “inhalant delivery systems” in the state, placed advertisements in newspapers, promoted resources for quitting smoking through social media and reminded the public of the impending law change through press releases in December.
About 16.2 of Oregonians smoked tobacco in 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. That’s a rate slightly lower than the national average of 17.5 percent.