|By Katelyn Gendron|
Reminder Assistant Editor
AGAWAM The recent passing of a "Sales to Minors" ordinance by the City Council which makes both the clerk and store owner legally and financially responsible for the sale of tobacco products to minors has sparked some debate over enforcement responsibility.
The ordinance requires that enforcement be left to the discretion of the Board of Health. However, Randall White, director of the Agawam Health Department, told Reminder Publications that there is not enough time or manpower to enforce this ordinance, nor was he ever consulted about the legislation.
After state budget cuts in 2002 that left most communities without funding for youth tobacco prevention, agencies such as the G ndara Center in West Springfield have sought out grant monies to conduct merchant education and compliance checks. Operating on a $70,000 grant from the Department of Public Health and the Tobacco Control Board, Michael Pease, program coordinator of Youth Tobacco Prevention at the G ndara Center, is responsible for those procedures for 265 retailers in 12 towns.
The grant requires that Pease visit each merchant in Agawam, Chicopee, Hampden, Westfield, West Springfield, Blandford, Chester, Granville, Holland, Southwick, Tolland and Wales and provide them with merchant education prior to conducting compliance checks twice every year.
After conducting compliance checks at Agawam's 33 merchants in February and March of this year, Pease discovered that six clerks each conducted an illegal sale of a tobacco product to a minor. According to a letter sent to City Council President Don Rheault by Sarah McColgan, Tobacco Control Director for the Massachusetts Health Officers Association, Agawam's illegal sale rate is 18.2 percent, 10.2 percent higher than the state average.
Pease, who works with local youth to conduct the compliance checks, said he informed White of the illegal sales. White, however, was reluctant to fine the merchants.
When asked why he did not fine the vendors for the illegal sales, White said it was not his prerogative to implement a fine based on "someone else's say-so." He added that had the town been conducting their own compliance checks he would have been more inclined to fine the merchants.
McColgan said she wrote the letter to the City Council commending them for their proactive efforts to reduce youth access to tobacco but that she was concerned about its inadequate enforcement.
"My question is why put in an ordinance when [the] G ndara [Center] is [conducting compliance] checking but no one is enforcing it," McColgan said. "If you are going to put in an ordinance like that let's get the compliance checks to go with it."
She added that she offered to work with Agawam next year to apply for a state mini-grant from the Department of Public Health and the Tobacco Control Board to help them conduct their own compliance checks. The mini-grant distributes $25,000 to 30 municipalities across the state.
McColgan explained that $40 is given for each successfully completed compliance check or attempt and $10 is granted for every attempt where the store was closed or no longer sells tobacco products.
When asked why the Agawam Board of Health has not applied for the mini-grant, White said, "Three thousand dollars is not an adequate amount of money to do a tobacco control program," adding that Agawam received $40,000 for their program prior to the budget cuts.
White reiterated that he is only one man conducting all the necessary compliance checks from food inspections to septic systems and would need more personnel to conduct tobacco compliance checks.
However, City Councilor George Bitzas, who sponsored the ordinance, said he disagrees, adding that White can conduct multiple compliance checks while at the same vendor.
"If there's a will, there's a way," Bitzas said. "It's not personnel, time can be managed."
He said that if the Board of Health needs additional personnel, a formal request must be filed with the City Council.
"Cities and towns that have a population of 30,000 you find that there is more than a Board of Health of one," White said.
Pease said that while previous compliance checks have demonstrated Agawam's higher illegal sale rate, this is only the first year of his work in the community. He added that over the next year he will be able to assess "the depth of the problem" and how to implement change for increased merchant accountability. Pease said he is eager and willing to work with all boards of health to supplement their merchant education and enforcement in order to drive down the accessibility of tobacco products to minors.