Twentysomethings need ID to smoke under new law

WASHINGTON (AP) — It’s official Friday: If you’re under age 27 and want to buy cigarettes or chewing tobacco, you have to produce a photo ID proving you’re old enough — at least 18.
The question is how will the government enforce the first wave of its crackdown on youth smoking.
Tobacco-friendly North Carolina and Virginia flip-flopped Thursday over enforcement. In addition, the FDA still hasn’t hired state inspectors to audit cigarette retailers’ compliance. That means, at least until summer, anti-tobacco volunteers will have to blow the whistle on offenders.
“It’s going to take an army of citizens,” said John Banzhaf of Action on Smoking and Health, which is organizing thousands of people to report suspected lawbreakers to an FDA hot line. He plans to send teens early Friday to test the new law in Washington and suburban Virginia stores.
State laws already outlaw selling tobacco to anyone under age 18. Yet government figures show minors buy $1.6 billion in tobacco annually, and 75 percent of teen smokers say they’ve never been carded — reports verified in states like Indiana, which last summer discovered 41 percent of stores selling tobacco to teens.
The FDA, in the first of sweeping new tobacco regulations, ordered retailers to card all customers younger than 27 to prevent mature-looking minors from buying tobacco. Store owners caught selling to teens face federal fines of $250 per violation.
The FDA is contracting with states to send undercover teen-agers to catch lawbreakers. But the agency still hasn’t picked the 10 states to share the first $4 million in enforcement funds, meaning federal stings won’t happen for at least a month, and can’t hire additional states unless Congress forks over more money.
FDA’s inspectors could target states that don’t do their own enforcement.
“If we find that a retailer is not complying, we can take appropriate steps … wherever he or she lives,” warned FDA spokesman Jim O’Hara.
Virginia and North Carolina, which joined a pending tobacco industry lawsuit challenging all the FDA’s tobacco regulations, are possible targets.
North Carolina Attorney General Mike Easley said in a statement early Thursday that pending the judge’s ruling, “Our department does not have authority to enforce the contested tobacco rules.” In a later interview, however, Easley acknowledged: “It is the law. … North Carolina law enforcement officers respect the law, and they will do what they can to enforce it.”
Virginia’s prosecutor’s office initially said it would ignore the law. But Gov. George Allen quickly repudiated that position, and Attorney General James Gilmore later told retailers to card customers “until the courts have ruled.”
While cigarette makers say Friday’s change doesn’t affect them, retailers predicted longer lines as they card customers who buy tobacco 26 million times a day.
The National Association of Convenience Stores advised 1 million store employees to tell irate customers they’re just doing a job the feds foisted on them.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” said an Alexandria, Va., 7-11 clerk who would identify herself only as Janice. “People already yell when you card them for beer.”
“You can’t card everyone all the time. It’s not worth the hassle,” said Cathy Beattie, co-owner of Marty’s First Stop in Danville, Vt.
But stores are getting the message. Retiring FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who leaves the post after a White House tobacco ceremony Friday, was handed a notice at his local 7-11 warning customers to bring ID.