Bill gives leeway for tobacco license violations

The bill would allow a more case-by-case evaluation of violations.

by Ashley Aram

Law-abiding shops that sell tobacco could catch a break if a bill that aims to individualize violations of selling to minors passes.

Responsible stores should be punished differently than intentionally unlawful businesses when caught selling to minors, said Sen. Dave Thompson, R-Lakeville. HeâÄôs proposed a bill that would allow a more case-by-case response to violations.

“At this point, those retail establishments that would be careless, reckless or selling to minors intentionally are essentially treated exactly the same as those retailers that in good faith are trying as best they can to not sell tobacco products to minors,” Thompson said. “WeâÄôre simply trying to put discretion at the local level.”

ThompsonâÄôs bill says regulators can respond accordingly if a violation was “caused by a sincere mistake made by an employee of the licensee.”

The Minneapolis Regulatory Services Department handles licensing and violations. Grant Wilson, manager of business licenses, said that each of the more than 400 businesses in the metro area that sell tobacco is tested once a year by a minor decoy who tries to buy tobacco. If the store fails a first test, there are follow-up checks.

The first two violations cost the store a fine, but the third and fourth could lead to the suspension of the tobacco license.

“I donâÄôt want to get caught selling to anyone, so we card everyone,” said House of Hanson Grocery Store manager Laurel Bauer.

For places like House of Hanson, violations can hurt business and can happen even with the strictest of policies.

“In October 2007 one of my stock boys decided to wait on someone, and he didnâÄôt card them and he got caught,” said Bauer. “He wasnâÄôt even supposed to be behind the counter.”

Bauer said she supports the bill because, though some stores are chronically unlawful, owners like her do make honest mistakes. She said her store has passed the last five tests.

“Sometimes they come back in and flash a badge in front of your face and say âÄòYouâÄôve passed!âÄô” she said. “They pretty much make your blood pressure go through the ceiling. My feeling is, we follow the law to the letter and I get frustrated that other stores are selling to underage.”

Of 40 violations of selling to minors in Minneapolis in 2010, none occurred in Dinkytown.

While the bill awaits a hearing next week, some have expressed opposition, like the American Cancer Society, which told Thompson it planned to testify against the bill. The groupâÄôs reasoning is that the bill would appeal to weaken sanctions on illegally operating stores, Thompson said.

Lt. Christopher Hildreth, commander of the Minneapolis police license investigation division, said the bill would not change current procedure.

“ThatâÄôs something that we would do anyway,” Hildreth said. “If you have a couple failures in a period of time we will call those licensees in for a license settlement conference where we will talk to those businesses about their practices.”