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Western New York has more underage cigarette smokers today than in 1990, and more than 20 municipalities have joined the fight against sales of tobacco to children.

Operation Protect Kids -- a police sting that sends underage decoys shopping for cigarettes -- expanded this year to a number of municipalities, including Buffalo, Grand Island, Newstead and Akron, according to the Erie County Health Department.

From 1990 to 1995, cigarette smoking increased to 59 percent from 55 percent among the area's seventh- through 12th-graders, a survey by the state Office on Alcohol and Substance Abuse Services indicates.

"It's not impossible for kids to get cigarettes," said Hillary Clarke, field director for Roswell Park Cancer Institute's Smoking Control Program. "Even if there are only one or two stores selling cigarettes, kids will know where to find them."

State Public Health Law prohibits the sale of tobacco products to anyone under 18. Merchants found violating the law face a series of progressive fines and possible loss of their licenses to sell tobacco.

A greater awareness of the dangers of cigarettes -- as indicated by the County Legislature's proposed comprehensive smoking ban, expected to take effect Jan. 1 -- has prompted the program's expansion.

So far this year, the decoy effort -- a joint project by the Health Department, Roswell Park and various law enforcement agencies -- has taken in $5,700 in fines, according to Peter Coppola, senior health sanitarian for the Health Department.

First-time offenders face a minimum fine of $100 to $300, Coppola said last week. Repeat offenders could pay up to $1,000 in fines, and merchants cited more than three times can lose their licenses to sell tobacco.

Coppola estimates that 7,000 establishments in Erie County sell tobacco products.

Since 1994, the compliance rate of the participating municipalities -- the average percentage of merchants asking for proof of age and refusing to sell tobacco to minors -- increased to 80 percent from 30 percent.

In Springville, the compliance rate increased to 70 percent in 1995 from 40 percent in 1994. In Orchard Park, the rate jumped to 70 percent from 25 percent. Cheektowaga posted an increase to 88 percent from 62 percent. Clarence went to 62 percent from from 15 percent.

This year in Amherst, underage decoys, accompanied by police officers, have visited 84 businesses. In five cases, the decoy was able to buy a pack of cigarettes, according to Lt. Patrick McKenna.

Amherst's compliance rate has increased to 93 percent this year from 25 percent when the program began in 1994, McKenna said.

"They (merchants) never know when there's going to be someone coming in," McKenna said. "They don't want to disobey the law."

At the Convenient Food Mart on Main Street, manager James Roessler "proofs just about everybody."

"It's better to be safe than sorry," Roessler said. "You might get the same kids trying to buy cigarettes over and over."

Merchants are being reminded to request identification from cigarette buyers who appear younger than 25, Coppola said.

"We're not entrapping or encouraging merchants to break the law. We make sure the decoys are age 16 or less, no facial hair for the boys and no makeup on the girls," Coppola said. "We want to be fair with the merchants, but we want them to understand they have the responsibility to check proof."

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