Faced with another Philadelphia first - a teen smoking rate that is No. 1 among big cities with comparable data, City Council voted unanimously Thursday to raise fines on merchants who sell to youths and to make it easier to temporarily shut them down for repeat violations.
Philadelphia has an unusually high number of retailers: one for every 27 kids ages 10 to 17. More than three-quarters of them are located within 1,000 feet of a school. Undercover compliance checks have found that kids successfully buy cigarettes a fifth of the time.
City Code treats illegal sales by retailers like a parking ticket (but one that is handled far less efficiently than the parking authority would). A summons is mailed out several weeks after the offense; the store owner mails back a $100 check for the first, second or even seventh offense, and usually that is the end of it. The amendment given final approval on Thursday raises the fine to $250. It also streamlines the process, rarely used by the Department of Licenses and Inspections in the recent past, to temporarily cease operations of retailers after a third violation. Officials say the Department of Public Health will also be more involved, with workers visiting every retailer within two days of every illegal sale.
The City Code is still far weaker than state statutes that cover all underage sales in New Jersey and everything in Pennsylvania outside Philadelphia. Those have graduated fine structures, reaching $1,000 or more for repeat offenses. The courts also get involved in every case, a procedure that city Health Commissioner Donald Schwarz said would be preferable but would overwhelm Municipal Court with 1,000 more cases a year. New Jersey five years ago also raised the minimum age for sales of tobacco to minors to 19; state excise taxes are higher there as well, a signifcant deterrent for youths with limited spare change.
Researchers say disposable income plays a major role in teen smoking. Indeed, while Philadelphia’s rate of 3.6 percent is highest among comparable big cities, it is less than half the national rate of 7.3 percent, which includes high school students from the suburbs and other areas. Statewide rates are 7.6 percent in Pennsylvania and 5.5 percent in New Jersey.
Disposable income also likely explains the huge racial and ethnic disparities in Philadelphia’s teen smoking rates: 15.6 percent for whites, 3.1 percent for Hispanics, and 1.2 percent for blacks. Both the white rate and the overall rate are the highest among select cities, according to the national Youth Risk Behavior Survey’s interactive data tool.
At first glance, none of those numbers seems particularly awful. So why make such a fuss over youths who smoke? Statistics show that 80 percent of adult smokers – Philadelphia is No. 1 among big cities there as well – started as teenagers. And, Jefferson University public health specialist Rob Simmons said in testimony to City Council last month, using statistics that were also cited by other experts: “More deaths are caused each year by tobacco use than all deaths from HIV, illegal drug use, alcohol use, motor vehicle injuries, suicides and murders combined.”