City sting to smoke out sellers in Burlingame

In an effort to stamp out the sale of tobacco products to minors, Burlingame police have partnered with local anti-tobacco advocates and will conduct sting operations at businesses in the coming weeks.

Police have passed out informational packets to 50 establishments that sell tobacco in Burlingame, and are in the process of meeting with business owners. Sting operations will include teenage volunteers from the Youth Leadership Institute, which is partnering with police and officials from both the San Mateo County Tobacco Prevention Program and Breathe California.

Ashok Patel, owner of the Burlingame Smoke Shop on Burlingame Avenue, said every now and again, kids attempt to purchase cigarettes from him.

“Nobody sells to minors,” he said. “I have letters from the past three years [from the city] saying ‘Thank you for cooperating.’”

Mario Cruz, owner of Burlingame Tobacconists on Burlingame Avenue, said he takes the sale of tobacco to minors very seriously.

“We card people up to 35. People say, ‘Jesus, I’m 30 years old,’” he said. “If you walk in with a kid and a wife and you have a wedding ring on, then we might not look at you twice.”

Even in this day and age of heightened awareness about cigarettes, vendors who sell to minors usually do it because they fail to look at customers, Burlingame police Sgt. Jim Ford said. Some ask to see identification but then get the math wrong on ages, he said.

“Sometimes it boils down to the merchants’ awareness of how old the customer is,” he said.

Karen Licavoli, vice president of programs for Breathe California, said stings are not meant to ambush businesses: Initial fines are about $100, but can rise after repeat offenses. She said stings are meant to reverse future sales because businesses garner reputations among teenagers about whether they sell to minors.

“If you go to any youth, theycan tell you where to buy cigarettes,” she said. “It’s been illegal to sell tobacco to minors for 100 years, but that doesn’t stop the fact that retailers sell.”

Licavoli said one solution would be to require cities to issue tobacco-sale licenses, which would be revoked if businesses are caught for selling to minors. The idea was raised in Daly City earlier this year, but city officials concluded that a shortage in police officers would make it difficult to enforce the licenses.

bfoley@examiner.com

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