The Town of Tonawanda Police Department is beginning its annual effort to combat cigarette sales to minors with a new weapon -- tougher penalties for stores that break the law.
Since 1994, the town police have worked with the Erie County Health Department to cut down on tobacco sales to underage teenagers through education and enforcement.
Town police accompany underage decoys who try to buy cigarettes from licensed vendors in Tonawanda and Kenmore.
Over the past five years, town police and the decoys have visited every tobacco vendor in the town, said Assistant Police Chief Brian P. Shields.
"We all have to do what we can to keep kids from smoking," Shields said. "You can't keep the kids from wanting to smoke. But you can put it in the mind of the vendor that 'I can't sell it to them.' "
Vendors who sell tobacco to the underage agents are referred to the county health department and face fines or suspension of their tobacco license.
A state health law that stiffens the penalties for vendors who sell tobacco to minors went into effect in September, said Peter Coppola, an associate public health sanitarian for the county. The law raises the minimum fine for a first violation by a tobacco vendor from $100 to $1,000, and increases the penalties for subsequent violations.
In addition to Tonawanda, the county health department works with the Erie County Sheriff's Department, Buffalo police and three town police departments to enforce the tobacco laws.
Each of the county's 1,100 licensed tobacco vendors is visited at least once a year by an underage decoy who tries to buy cigarettes, Coppola said.
In Tonawanda, police send a letter to every tobacco vendor informing him that he will be visited by an underage decoy at some point in the year.
The legal age to purchase tobacco in New York State is 18. The town and county use decoys who are 16 or younger, Shields said.
Tonawanda police since 1996 have caught 15 vendors selling tobacco to minors as part of this sting operation, according to town records. Eight of the violations happened in 2000, when town police visited 75 vendors, Shields said. The eight vendors each were fined $300, Coppola said.
As a result of the new state law, vendors lose their tobacco license for six months for second violations. For subsequent violations, vendors face the loss of their tobacco license for up to a year and the loss of their license to sell lottery tickets for the same period.
That's a serious threat to a store owner, Coppola said.
"We have heard from merchants (that) if they lose their cigarette license or their lottery license, even for six months, they'd basically go out of business," he said.