It takes two seconds for retail clerks to ask a minor for his or her ID during a tobacco compliance check and be entered in a raffle to win a pizza party. The fine, ranging from $100 to $300 in Oshkosh, means a clerk just sold a minor cigarettes. Emily Dieringer, coalition coordinator at the Lakeshore Tobacco Prevention Network in Oshkosh, said the goal of these compliance checks isn’t to raise money in fines but to ensure youths under 18 are living healthy, smoke-free lives.
“We can’t go around and control if a mom or dad gives their kids a pack of cigarettes, or if an older brother or sister gives them a cigar, but with retailers we can make a big impact,” Dieringer said.
A study released by WI Wins, a program of the state’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, shows retailers in the Oshkosh area are faring better than most in the region at passing compliance checks. Last year, Winnebago County retailers only sold tobacco to minors 4.3 percent of the time during these checks, while the average for a nine-county region in Northeastern Wisconsin was 11.5 percent.
Though this number is virtually unchanged from the 11.1 percent average in last year’s study, Winnebago County has improved its numbers significantly in recent years, as retailers sold tobacco to minors 25 percent of the time during compliance checks two years ago.
“Just in the last couple years we’ve seen it drop way down, which is awesome,” Dieringer said. “In 2009 we were in the top five for highest in the state. Now we’re down to about 1 in 20 instead of 1 in 4. That’s a huge accomplishment.”
On a state level the situation is bleaker, as funding for tobacco prevention programs was cut last May to less than $6 million per year and compliance checks have been reduced.
“It’s dismal when you look at how well prevention works,” Dieringer said. “It’s so much easier to have a youth not use tobacco than to have someone who is older quit.”
In the meantime, agencies like the Lakeshore Tobacco Prevention Network, which is based out of the Winnebago County Health Department, will have to find more cost-effective ways to inform people about the dangers of smoking.
“We’re going to have to get creative, with more emails, and more word-of-mouth,” Dieringer said. “Still, nothing gets that point across better than that $300 citation.”