Reminder Assistant Editor
AGAWAM Today over 45 million Americans use tobacco products and of those more than 22 percent are high school students, according to the Center for Disease Control.
In an effort to curb those statistics, last week the Agawam City Council voted unanimously in favor of a new "Sales to Minors" ordinance designed to make tobacco products even less accessible to young people and those who sell the products more responsible.
Under the new ordinance the clerks as well as the store owners are financially and legally responsible for the sales of tobacco products to minors.
"We've got to make it clear to our young kids that [smoking] is not glamorous," George Bitzas, Agawam City Councilor and sponsor of the ordinance, said. "They hurt and they kill."
He added that while drafting the ordinance he was stunned to discover that about 3,000 people become new smokers everyday.
"I don't want to see that," Bitzas said of the statistic. "Hopefully this [ordinance] will help to discourage young people not to smoke."
Bitzas said he was approached about drafting a new ordinance by a concerned businessman John Eisenbeiser, co-owner of Riverside Liquors on Main Street, who had seen a similar ordinance passed in Springfield.
"I have always had a growing concern about placing responsibility where it belongs," Eisenbeiser said. "You don't have to let me off my responsibility [as an owner] but we're open 95 hours a week and we own two package stores. We have to rely on clerks that sometimes might be having a bad day and just doesn't feel like doing the job the way it should be done."
Eisenbeiser added that prior to the ordinance there was no "incentive" for the clerk to check customers for proper identification when selling tobacco products, other than termination of their employment.
Under the ordinance, if a tobacco product is sold to a minor a person under the age of 18 the clerk would be fined $100 for the first "offense," $200 for the second "offense" and $300 "for any third or subsequent offense."
Bitzas said that under Massachusetts state law the fine for selling tobacco products to minors is paid by the store owner but there is no fine for the clerk that sold the tobacco product.
He added that establishing fines for clerks would encourage them to be more cautious when selling tobacco products, "otherwise [the clerks] don't care because the owner would have to pay the fine."
Enforcement of the ordinance and fines are the responsibility of the Board of Health and the Health Department staff.
Eisenbeiser said that a sale made by one of his clerks to a minor last year prompted him to think about the legislation of more stringent consequences. He added that the clerk was finishing up her last week before beginning a new job and her mind was not on the task at hand. He said if she knew there would be a consequence, the illegal sale probably would not have been made.
"I do have to take on the responsibility because I take on a product that is age sensitive," Eisenbeiser said. "But knowing [the clerks] are going to suffer a financial consequence will not hurt the situation at all, only help it."
He added that he requires his staff to check for proper identification when selling tobacco products and alcohol to anyone who looks 30 years old or younger. He said this rule acts as a "safeguard" for his employees.
Gina Piedra, manager at Riverside Liquors said that the new ordinance will not affect her work. She said she will continue to perform her job in the same manor but that it does "make her more aware."
Piedra said she manages seven employees at the Main Street location and noted that the new ordinance will more than likely make the clerks "card harder" for fear of a fine.
"[The fine] is a lot of money but that's just the responsibility that comes along with the job," she said.
Robert Magovern, Agawam City Councilor and chair of the Ordinance Committee said he hopes the new ordinance will take away the "temptation" and accessibility of tobacco products to teenagers. He added that he believes "experimentation" is the root cause of why so many young people become tobacco users every year.