Choking tobacco sales

Determining how vigilant to be when protecting the health of minors is a conundrum. Take teen smoking, for instance. How oppressive should parents be in preventing their children from smoking? Certainly they need to do everything reasonable to deter their kids, but the operative word is “reasonable.” Inserting a hidden microphone into a kid’s shirt collar is not reasonable, but smelling their clothes before they’ve been washed is. Yet, within this dichotomy lies a gray space of uncertainty that has been perplexing parents for generations. So when the city of Burnsville penalized a SuperAmerica convenience store with what equates to more than half a million dollars for selling to a minor for the fifth time in less than two years, it’s difficult to know whether to cheer or balk.

The police were performing a mandatory follow-up inspection for a fourth infraction by SuperAmerica at County Road 5 and Burnsville Parkway when a store clerk again sold tobacco to a minor. The store needed to be reprimanded. Burnsville law allows for up to a two-year suspension of tobacco sales for four or more infractions within a 36-month period. But with SuperAmerica officials testifying that their store generates $1,500 per day from tobacco sales, or $1,095,000 every two years, a maximum sentence seemed too stringent.

The city instead imposed a one-year suspension and a $10,000 fine. Hardly backing down, the city’s punishment will cost SuperAmerica $547,500 in lost tobacco sales, plus ancillary costs as consumers will fill their tanks where they can buy cigarettes – even if it means driving 10 minutes out of the way. The decreased revenue has SuperAmerica worried about the viability of keeping the store open. The punishment is too severe a burden.

What Burnsville is doing is neither reasonable nor efficient. If suspending the store’s tobacco license – potentially closing the store – was the only way to stop sales to minors, then the punishment would be justified, but it’s not.

The city could make the store set up an ID scanner to be used every time cigarettes are sold – effectively stopping sales to minors. Residents’ inconvenience would be reduced to running an ID through a scanner rather than having to drive to another gas station. The store would stay in business and when it returned to selling cigarettes, after a more reasonable one-month suspension, the ID checker would be a guaranteed deterrent to minors for years to come. The city could still impose its $10,000 fine plus defer the full two-year suspension for the store’s financial assistance to anti-smoking education in schools, which SuperAmerica officials have already offered.

Reasonable behavior balances on limiting negative externalities while reaping as much benefit as the situation presents. Currently, Burnsville’s plan simply does not do that.