Topeka Minors are finding it far too easy to get their hands on a pack of cigarettes in Kansas, so state regulators say stricter enforcement -- and stiffer penalties -- are needed.
Tom Groneman, director of the Kansas Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control, said Thursday that compliance with a state law prohibiting the sale of cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to minors had fallen to 62 percent in 2004 from 80 percent in 2003.
"We were surprised when we saw the number. We had no idea," Groneman said.
The 80 percent threshold is important financially.
Kansas must maintain that level as part of two federal health and tobacco acts and the 1998 multistate settlement with national tobacco companies. Kansas expects to receive about $53 million from the settlement in the current fiscal year, with much of that money spent on children's programs.
Kansas also stands to lose $5 million in federal substance abuse prevention grants, said Mike Deines, a spokesman for the Department of Social and Rehabilitation Services. Those funds are distributed to prevention programs statewide.
However, Deines said, the federal government could consider the state's efforts to reduce underage smoking when considering the penalty.
"We're waiting to hear what's going to happen," he said. "They look at a lot of factors. It's not a sure thing that we're going to lose that $5 million."
One factor in the decreased level of compliance is that ABC has been conducting more undercover operations to monitor sales, Groneman said.
In response to the latest report, the agency is changing its fine structure.
Any retail business violating the law will be fined the maximum $1,000 per incident, and the employee making the sale will be charged with a misdemeanor carrying maximums of a $1,000 fine and one year in jail.
Groneman also said local law enforcement agencies should actively pursue minors breaking the law.
Businesses licensed to sell tobacco were notified in writing about the changes in November.
House Speaker Doug Mays, R-Topeka, said he was aware that ABC was understaffed, but the law must be upheld, "notwithstanding if we get our tobacco money or not."
According to the most recent figures, cigarette smoking has dropped 19 percent among high school students.
Julia Francisco, a spokeswoman for the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said the reduction is tied to prevention programs and community attitudes about smoking.
In Salina, she said, a program funded by $500,000 in federal money has raised compliance to more than 90 percent -- in part by seeking greater parental involvement in curbing underage smoking.
"(Compliance) isn't a silver bullet," Francisco said. "It takes a barrage of components."
State health officials also believe the increase in tobacco taxes in 2003 helped reduce underage smoking.
Kansas raised the tax on a package of cigarettes by 55 cents, to 79 cents a pack, to help boost state revenues. Gov. Kathleen Sebelius recently unveiled a $50 million health care initiative that would be funded by a 50-cent increase in cigarette taxes and raising the excise tax on tobacco products to 15 percent from the current 10 percent.