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Minors' Access to Smokeless Tobacco -- Florida, 1994

Laws enacted by the legislature in Florida to restrict access of minors to tobacco (Florida Revised Statutes 859.06-859.061) went into effect October 1, 1992, and May 20, 1994; these laws prohibit the sale of tobacco products to persons aged less than 18 years and require the posting of a warning sign indicating that such sales to minors are illegal. Merchants convicted for such violations can be fined up to $500 and imprisoned up to 60 days. Florida and Vermont are the only states that enforce access laws restricting the sale of tobacco to minors statewide (1). Although minors' access to cigarettes is well documented, the extent to which minors have access to smokeless tobacco (SLT) has not been well characterized. To assess the effectiveness of the Florida laws in preventing minors from gaining over-the-counter access to SLT and in ensuring that tobacco vendors comply with the sign statute, in November 1994, the Department of Exercise Science/Wellness Education of Florida Atlantic University conducted a study of minors' attempts to access SLT in Palm Beach County (1990 population: 863,518). The findings in this report indicate that, despite the enactment of laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to persons aged less than 18 years, some minors still were successful at purchasing SLT.

The 1994-95 Florida Business Directory was used to identify four categories of retail outlets in Palm Beach County: convenience stores, grocery stores, pharmacies, and gasoline stations (n=722). A map of the county was divided into 12 equally sized areas; within each of these areas, 11 sample retail sites were randomly selected to produce a total sample of 132 retail sites. Of the 132 sites, 44 were excluded from the assessment because they had closed, had moved, no longer sold tobacco products, or were considered by the adult team member at the time of the purchase attempt to be in unsafe areas. The remaining 88 stores represented 12% of the 722 retail sites in the county, and comprised 25 (17%) of 149 pharmacies, 10 (8%) of 125 grocery stores, 39 (16%) of 246 gas stations, and 14 (7%) of 202 convenience stores. Four teams of volunteers, each comprising one minor (from among four minors aged 11-17 years) and one adult, were used for the assessment; three of the minors were female, aged 11, 14, and 17 years, and one was a 14-year-old male. One purchase attempt was made at each of the 88 stores.

Purchase attempts followed a standard procedure: the adult member of the team entered the store first to note the presence of any clearly displayed signs stating that tobacco products would not be sold to minors. The adult then observed while the minor entered the retail site, selected a SLT (i.e., snuff or loose-leaf or fine-cut chewing tobacco) and attempted to purchase the product. If a sale was recorded on the cash register or the vendor placed the SLT on the counter for purchase by the minor, the attempt was considered successful; the minor would then state that he or she had insufficient money for purchase and would immediately leave the store. The attempt also was considered successful if the vendor asked the minor's age but was prepared to sell the SLT. * If the minor was denied purchase outright or was asked for age verification and denied purchase, the attempt was considered unsuccessful. The adult member recorded reasons for refusal as stated by the vendor at the time of attempted purchase; when no refusal reason was provided to the minor, the adult team member waited until the minor had departed and then asked the vendor about the reason for refusal. Significance testing was performed using Pearson chi-square tests.

Overall, attempts by minors to purchase SLT were successful in 31 (35%) of the 88 retail sites. The likelihood of a successful attempt was greater for the 17-year-old female (24 {77%} of 31 attempts) (p less than 0.01). The likelihood of a successful attempt was similar for each of the four categories of stores: attempts were successful at 15 (39%) of the 39 gas stations; five (36%) of the 14 convenience stores; eight (32%) of the 25 pharmacies; and three (30%) of the 10 grocery stores. Of the 65 stores for which data were available, warning signs provided by the Florida Department of Business and Professional Regulation were posted in 27 (42%); purchase attempts were more successful in stores without signs than in those with signs (20 {57%} of 35 versus seven {23%} of 30, respectively {p less than 0.01}).

Reasons specified by the vendors for the 57 unsuccessful attempts were that the minors looked too young (34 {60%} attempts), that the sale of tobacco products to minors was illegal (11 {19%} attempts), and that the store had a policy prohibiting sales to minors (eight {14%} attempts); in four (7%) attempts, either no product was offered when a minor requested it or no refusal explanation was offered.

Reported by: FS Bridges, EdD, RL Welsh, PhD, Dept of Exercise Science/Wellness Education, Florida Atlantic Univ, Davie; JM Malecki, MD, HRS/Palm Beach County Public Health Unit, West Palm Beach, Florida. Office on Smoking and Health, National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, CDC.

Editorial Note

Editorial Note: The assessment in Palm Beach County indicates that, despite the enactment of state laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to persons aged less than 18 years, 35% of minors were successful in making attempts to purchase SLT. Previous assessments in Kansas and Texas documented successful attempt rates by minors of 15% and 59%, respectively (2,3). The differences in successful attempt rates in the three assessments may reflect, in part, variations related to the ages of the minors making the purchase attempts. For example, in Palm Beach County, the 17-year-old female was more likely to be successful than those minors aged less than 14 years, possibly because some vendors may have presumed that the SLT was not for her use (S. Bridges, Florida Atlantic University, personal communication, 1995).

As a result of the assessment in Palm Beach County, measures to reduce the sale and use of tobacco products among minors in the county will be implemented and will include educating the public and the business community about this problem, and encouraging businesses that sell SLT to comply with the state laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to minors and to post warning signs about those laws. In addition, other strategies policy makers and school and public health officials can use to prevent the use of tobacco by minors include 1) the designation of state agencies to be primarily responsible for investigation and enforcement of sales to minors, 2) increasing the severity of penalties for repeat illegal sales, 3) levying separate fines for failure to post warning signs stating the legal age of purchase, 4) requiring retailers to ask all purchasers of tobacco products to show proof of age, 5) restricting tobacco-product advertising targeted toward minors, 6) ensuring that health education curricula in grades kindergarten through 12 include a tobacco-education component; and 7) banning the use of vending machines (3,4).


  1. Office of Evaluations and Inspections. Youth access to tobacco. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General, 1992; DHHS publication no. (OEI)02-91-00880.

  2. Hoppock KC, Houston TP. Availability of tobacco products to minors. J Fam Pract 1990;30:174-6.

  3. CDC. Minors' access to tobacco -- Missouri, 1992, and Texas, 1993. MMWR 1993;42:125-8.

  4. Public Health Service. Model Sale of Tobacco Products to Minors Control Act. Washington, DC: US Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Service, 1990.

    • During one successful purchase attempt, the adult/minor team determined that the vendor was prepared to sell based on the vendor's tone of voice during the attempted transaction and the vendor's movement of the SLT toward the minor at the sales counter.

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