Butt Heads

The Spike was a good kid this week.

The Spike didn't drive drunk. Didn't steal anything. Didn't urinate in public.

The Spike didn't even kill anyone. Although The Spike certainly thought about it when the very slick press kit from the State of Arizona's new CounterActs campaign arrived in its mailbox.

CounterActs is a $250,000 yearlong effort to keep cigarettes and other tobacco products out of the hands of kids. The new campaign is directed at store owners and store clerks.

The theme: Don't sell cigarettes to kids.

Wow. Now there's a news flash. It's been illegal to sell tobacco to minors since long before The Spike was a minor. And that (sadly) is a long, long time ago.

But apparently some people still sell cigarettes to kids (stop the presses!), just as they've done since the days The Spike was occasionally able to score an illicit pack of Kool filters.

Now the state has decided to try a new tack: Reward store clerks for not breaking the law. So CounterActs will provide free tickets to the movies and to prime-time sports events the Arizona Diamondbacks, Phoenix Suns, Phoenix Coyotes, Phoenix Mercury and Arizona Rattlers to people who don't sell cigarettes to kids. (Interestingly, the Arizona Cardinals are not part of this program. The Spike just has to say it: They can't even give away tickets to Cardinals games. Ha, ha.)

The sports tickets are being provided free by the teams. And the public cost of the movie passes (which include free popcorn and a drink) is fairly minimal. Most of the money is going to marketing and media and stickers (in two languages) and an 11-minute video that shows clerks how to check ID.

Still, it gripes The Spike that we've come to this. Which is an incredibly pathetic set of circumstances that is probably some sort of profound metaphor for society today, but The Spike is too depressed by it all to think of a clever line.

First, The Spike is a big fan of not smoking, kids or adults. Hey, if The Spike can quit, so can all you other slobs. A campaign to keep kids from smoking is just fine.

But there's a bigger problem. It seems the state is in danger of losing roughly $11 million in federal funds if the underage "buy rate" exceeds 20 percent. Last year, the state's official underage buy rate, as determined by an independent federal compliance survey, was 12.8 percent, according to state officials.

In August, Sheriff Joe Arpaio sent his own people out to stores in an enforcement effort that resulted in Joe's kids snagging smokes from 30 percent of the stores they "stung."

State health officials don't want to risk a 30 percent underage buy rate when the official federal survey is done. So the CounterActs campaign is targeting Maricopa County. State officials say the problem is not the big retail and grocery chains but rather the independent, small "mom and pop" corner stores.

But it seems even America's Toughest Sheriff is powerless to put the brakes on selling to kids. This because the current law prohibiting the sale of tobacco products to minors is pathetically weak. It's what they call a petty offense, which is even lower on the criminal food chain than a misdemeanor. A clerk can be fined up to $300; the store owner up to $1,000.

"We've found, frankly, that that penalty is too low," says Cathy Bischoff, office chief for the state's Tobacco Education and Prevention Program. "Our ability to enforce is handicapped by legislation that doesn't have enough teeth."

On top of that, prosecutors often find the cases too minimal to bother with, she says, and courts that would be our wonderful justices of the peace in this lowly instance frequently dismiss citations for the same reason: too small a sack of potatoes.

And here's a shocker. An effort last year by the Attorney General's Office (that would have been Janet Napolitano) in the form of a bill to create stiffer penalties fell flat. It didn't even get a hearing. No one is bringing it up again this year, what with all the budget teeth-gnashing. (Although that hasn't stopped lawmakers from a number of bubble-headed moves, like passing a resolution touting gun shows as wholesome family entertainment on the same day Arizona law enforcement officers, as part of a national conference, passed their own resolution aimed at cracking down on gun violence.)

Without a big stick, the state has been forced to break out the carrots.

And this is where it gets even worse. It turns out that kids these days are dumber than even The Spike could have imagined.

State officials have found that store clerks aren't actually capable of figuring out if someone is old enough to buy cigarettes. "We found that most people attempt to ID but don't do it correctly," Bischoff says. "They can't do the math. They can't calculate."

C'mon. Isn't double-digit subtraction a third-grade thing?

Even signs posted at the cash register saying you have to have been born before, say, (this date) 1985, are still too much of a brain strain for many sales clerks, Bischoff says.

"The longevity of a Circle K clerk is 90 days," she notes.

(Apparently, clerks don't have as much trouble carding people for booze. In this state, driver's licenses for people under 21 are a different color.)

The rewards program has been tried in Montana and Wyoming, where Bischoff says it's worked to reduce the underage buy rate.

Hmmm. The American Lung Association, which rates all states based on their anti-smoking efforts, gives Arizona a "C" when it comes to youth-access issues; Montana and Wyoming both have an "F" in that category.

So forgive The Spike for being cynical. Maybe a couple of tickets to the Diamondbacks behind home plate, please would keep The Spike from going to this weekend's gun show, and picking up a hot little Tech 9, and smoking a few lawmakers. Just, um, kidding.

Spike us!

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Patti Epler
Contact: Patti Epler