A survey conducted by teen-agers of 519 Los Angeles County stores found that 60% illegally sell cigarettes to minors, including 83% of the 18 stores surveyed in Pico-Union.
The survey, coordinated by the Los Angeles Regional Tobacco Control Community Linkage Project, involved 118 youths ages 14 to 17 who tried to buy cigarettes at supermarkets, gas stations, and grocery, liquor and convenience stores.
None of the youths actually purchased any cigarettes; if a clerk agreed to make a sale, the minors said they had insufficient money and left the store. But adult members of the survey team watched surreptitiously and recorded the successful attempted buys as sales.
Under California law, it is illegal to sell cigarettes to under 18.
Among the 12 communities surveyed, sales to minors ranged from a low of 36% in Silver Lake to a high of 83% in Pico-Union, where minors made successful attempted buys at 15 of 18 stores.
In Echo Park and South-Central, minors were able to buy cigarettes at 60% of the stores surveyed, compared with 43% in the Mid-Wilshire area.
Beginning in October, states failing to enforce tobacco sales laws risk losing federal block grants; for California the loss could be as much as $140 million over four years.
A bill before the state Senate would boost California's enforcement measures and introduce stiffer penalties for offenders.
Youths who participated in the survey said they plan to produce public service announcements, distribute stickers spelling out sales laws and host awareness meetings for merchants as part of a campaign to reduce cigarette sales to minors.
"There's a lot of peer pressure and pressure from the media to smoke, and a lot of people think it's cool," said Luigi Rao, 14. "At some stores they ask you your age but mostly they just want to make money." At seven of the 10 stores Rao visited, clerks were willing to sell him cigarettes.