The number of local businesses who have being caught selling tobacco products to underage customers has dropped by half from 20 percent in 2007 to an expected 9 percent this year, according to Kern County Public Health.
The department said it has seen a decrease in sales to decoys pretending to be 21 over the past decade. The legal age to smoke jumped up from 18 to 21 in California in 2016.
So far this year, there have been 69 violations, representing around 9 percent of businesses licensed to sell tobacco products in the county.
Last year, 10 percent of Kern County businesses were found to be non-compliant, which itself was an improvement from 12 percent in 2016, according to the department.
“I think the message is loud and clear,” said KCPH Assistant Director Brynn Carrigan. “We think this is a necessity because we need to make sure businesses aren’t selling these products to children. We have more work to do, but we believe this is making a difference.”
While the department has seen success in recent years, Carrigan said the county is still nearly double the state average of around 5 percent.
Carrigan said the department frequently sends out undercover decoys, adults between the ages of 18 and 20, to catch businesses in the act of selling cigarette products to them.
“If a business has a history in the past five years of selling to decoy, they are at risk of losing their license to sell tobacco products,” she said. “We’re a lot more progressive than other counties.”
While Carrigan said there have been several businesses that have hit the three-violation mark, the county has yet to revoke a license.
The department runs decoy operations everywhere in the county except Bakersfield and Ridgecrest, where it has offered to provide the service but there has yet to be any movement.
The decoy operations are funded through mandatory permit fees that businesses pay to sell tobacco products in the county.
Many businesses who have been found in violation have taken corrective actions, such as installing new cash registers that require a clerk or other employee to scan an ID to continue with a transaction when an alcohol or tobacco product is scanned.
Registers can also scan cards to determine if they are a fake.
The Smokehouse, a tobacco shop in Lake Isabella, installed such a register this summer after hitting their third violation and having to shut down for three months. Since then, management said there have been no issues.
“We’ve always done well not selling to minors,” said Manager Robert Shuell. “The only people (under age) that we’ve sold to have been the decoys.”
Shuell said that with Lake Isabella being a small town, the business knows many of the kids who are under age.
“Everybody knows everybody in this town,” he said. “Minors come in and get turned around without even pulling their fake IDs out. They always say they’re almost of age, but almost doesn’t cut it. It’s not our intent to sell to minors. We’re very family oriented.”
Shuell said that during this last violation, there was a new person who was working when the decoy — who he said looked well over 21 and had a beard — tried to buy tobacco products. While Shuell said the clerk asked for the man’s ID, he didn’t check the date of birth appropriately.
If he had, the clerk would have seen that the man was 20, not 21.
“It’s an unfortunate mishap. We don’t plan on it happening again,” he said.
While this was the third violation in five years, Shuell said the other two happened back-to-back around four years ago, when The Smokehouse was under different management.
During The Smokehouse’s temporary closure, Shuell said putting food on the table for his family was a challenging task.
“My wife’s income helped, otherwise it would have been bad,” he said.
However, he said one of his four employees at the time never returned after the store re-opened.
“I do think it does a lot more harm than good,” he said of the county’s efforts. “I feel like it’s entrapment with them sending people in undercover. If there’s suspicion about a business selling to minors, then send a decoy in. Don’t do it to every store in town. That’s just a waste of time and taxpayer money.”
Carrigan said the department will only send a decoy into a business once a year unless they have previous violations, like The Smokehouse has.
“The more violations a business has, the more often decoys go in to ensure they have implemented what needs to be done to prevent further sales,” she said.
As for the financial impacts of a closure? Carrigan said that’s just the unfortunate consequence of businesses violating county law.
“While us closing a business may have a financial impact on them, not abiding by the law has a larger impact on the health of the community as a whole,” she said.