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Progress in Chronic Disease Prevention Cigarette Sales to Minors -- Colorado, 1989

In July 1987, the Colorado legislature enacted a law* that prohibits the sale of tobacco to minors (persons less than 18 years of age) and prohibits minors from purchasing tobacco. In August 1989, The Coalition for a Tobacco-Free Colorado, a consortium of privately and publicly funded health organizations, assessed the effectiveness of the law in preventing minors from purchasing cigarettes in Colorado. This report summarizes the findings from that assessment.

Eleven teams of volunteers, each consisting of a minor (mean age: 14.9 years; range: 9-17 years) and an adult, attempted to purchase cigarettes (but did not actually purchase cigarettes) at randomly selected tobacco sales outlets in suburban Denver and outlying communities. Adult members of the team were chosen from a network of coalition volunteers; minors were recruited by the adults (e.g., from their own families or from families of friends). Although each team was initially assigned 20 sites, including up to four vending machine sites, the final sample included 121 sites (range: 4-22 per team). The survey design was modeled on a 1988 study in Santa Clara County, California; in that study, the minors actually purchased the cigarettes (1). Because no cigarettes were purchased in the Colorado study, law enforcement officials were not notified of the study.

At each retail site, the team member who was a minor entered the store alone and asked the vendor for a pack of cigarettes. If the minor was asked for age verification and denied purchase, the attempt was classified as unsuccessful. If a sale was recorded on the cash register or a pack of cigarettes was placed on the counter, the attempt was considered successful (a purchase was not made, however; instead, the minor stated that he/she did not have enough money and left the store). The attempt was also considered successful if the vendor asked the minor his/her age but was prepared to sell the cigarettes regardless of the minor's age.

At each vending machine site, the minor entered the vending area alone and attempted to locate the vending machine sign that is required by state law to warn against cigarette sales to minors. If the minor was able to simulate a purchase (i.e., by inserting four pennies, pressing a selection button, pretending to pick up a pack of cigarettes, and leaving the site), the attempt was considered successful. If the proprietor asked for the minor's age or identification, the attempt was considered unsuccessful.

Of 121 purchase attempts, 97 involved contact with a vendor and 24 involved vending machines. Overall, 64% of attempts were successful, including 55% of the vendor contacts and 100% of the vending machine attempts. The success rate was similar for older ( greater than 14 years of age) and younger (less than or equal to 14 years of age) minors (26/47 (55%) compared with 27/50 (54%), respectively). Although girls were more successful than boys (60% compared with 48%), this difference was not statistically significant (p greater than 0.05, chi-square test). Attempts were more successful in pharmacies (8/10 (80%)) and gas stations (11/16 (69%)) than in food stores (10/21 (48%)) and convenience stores (18/39 (46%)); attempts at nonfood outlets were more likely to be successful than attempts at food outlets (68% compared with 46%; p less than 0.05). Purchase attempts were more successful in rural towns than in suburban Denver stores (64% compared with 41%; p less than 0.05). For 17 (71%) of the vending machines, the required warning signs were not posted. Reported by: L Ravesloot, Front Range Community College, Westminster; WF Young, MA, DA Walkington, Div of Prevention Programs, Colorado Dept of Health. Program Svcs Activity, Office on Smoking and Health, Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: In the United States, approximately 80%-90% of smokers begin smoking before age 21 (2), and an estimated 3000 teenagers initiate smoking each day (3). Based on national estimates and Colorado population data, approximately 80 minors in Colorado must initiate smoking each day to sustain 1986 cigarette sales levels (i.e., to offset the number of smokers lost to cessation or death) (4).

In general, most smoking-prevention activities in Colorado and other states have been aimed at reducing demand for tobacco among young persons through educational programs. Activities that restrict the supply of tobacco to minors have been hampered because laws that support such activities often do not have substantive provisions for enforcement (5).

Findings from this survey indicated that merchant policies requiring sales clerks to establish customer proof of age to purchase cigarettes have not been implemented universally in Colorado. Moreover, sales clerks did not appear to discriminate in their sales practices between very young adolescents and those closer to legal age. Minors' access to cigarettes may have been less successful at food outlets than at nonfood outlets because most food outlets in Colorado sell beer, and sales clerks at these outlets are accustomed to asking for proof of age. Minors may have been able to purchase cigarettes more readily in outlying communities because the age restriction may not have been as well-publicized in those areas as in the Denver metropolitan area. Many vendors in Colorado may not be familiar with this law and its specific provisions; some may believe that its enforcement is unlikely or that the profits from cigarette sales to minors outweigh possible financial penalties for violating the law.

Options available to state and local jurisdictions that could more effectively restrict access to tobacco by minors include 1) developing a retail tobacco sales licensure system in which licensure fees are used to support enforcement efforts, 2) educating vendors about tobacco sales to minors and about the vendors' responsibility to uphold the law prohibiting such sales, and 3) enacting state laws and local ordinances that prohibit the sale of tobacco through vending machines (6).

Colorado will use the results from this study to help develop support for an enforcement program to reduce sales of cigarettes to minors, assist tobacco retail groups in increasing their use of warning signs, and help educate tobacco merchants about the need to prevent the illegal purchase of cigarettes by minors.


  1. Altman DG, Foster V, Rasenick-Douss L, Tye JB. Reducing the illegal sale of cigarettes to minors. JAMA 1989;261:80-3.

  2. CDC. Reducing the health consequences of smoking: 25 years of progress--a report of the Surgeon General. Rockville, Maryland: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1989; DHHS publication no. (CDC)89-8411.

  3. Pierce JP, Fiore MC, Novotny TE, Hatziandreu EF, Davis RM. Trends in cigarette smoking in the United States: projections to the year 2000. JAMA 1989;261:61-5.

  4. Tye JB, Warner KE, Glantz SA. Tobacco advertising and consumption: evidence of a causal relationship. J Public Health Policy 1987;8:492-508.

  5. CDC. State laws restricting minors' access to tobacco. MMWR 1990;39:349-53.

  6. Hearings Before the Senate Committee on Finance (May 24, 1990) (testimony of Louis W. Sullivan, MD, secretary of health). *State of Colorado law CRS 18-13-121 entitled "Concerning Unlawful Distribution of Cigarettes and Tobacco Products."

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