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CHINATOWN : Teens Spearhead Anti-Tobacco Drive

November 20, 1994

Youths throughout Asian American communities are pushing to halt tobacco sales to minors by educating merchants about state laws and health hazards.

About 35 teen-agers with Young Asian Pacifics United Against Tobacco (YAPUT), a nonprofit health group that serves Asian American areas, fanned out to the South Bay, San Gabriel Valley, Chinatown and Koreatown to survey 80 store owners on tobacco use and sales. Nearly all, organizers said, were unaware state regulations prohibit tobacco sales to minors.

"We call upon the merchants to take responsibility," said project coordinator Valerie Mih, adding that tobacco use is high in Asian American communities.

According to the California Department of Health, 80% of 15-year-olds in California illegally purchase cigarettes without any problems. And an estimated 1 billion packs of cigarettes are sold to minors every year, a 1990 study in the Journal of the American Medical Assn. found.

The Asian/Pacific Islander Tobacco Education Network reports that 37% of Asian boys and 29% of Asian girls begin smoking in adolescence.

"As a child, I noticed more children using more tobacco," said Mike Qui, 18, a YAPUT volunteer who grew up in Koreatown. "I used to play basketball with guys from around here, and some would stop playing and grab a cigarette."

YAPUT found that 91% of the merchants surveyed were willing to sell tobacco to minors. During a five-month period, YAPUT teen volunteers posed as cigarette buyers. Once merchants placed a cigarette pack on the counter, the teens would tell them about state tobacco laws and civil fines and encourage them to check the identification of young buyers.

The volunteers would then leave anti-smoking key chains and posters at the stores, which ranged from mom-and-pop liquor stores to gasoline stations to supermarkets.

"At no time during the survey did any of our youth ever buy cigarettes," YAPUT staff member Tom Tran said.

Several weeks later, teen volunteers polled the same stores and found a 38% decrease in tobacco sales to minors.

YAPUT organizers hope to disseminate this data to anti-tobacco organizations and to continue their education program with local merchants and in high school classrooms.

"I'm glad I'm doing this," said YAPUT volunteer Christy Lieu, 16.

"I knew kids in my elementary school who were smoking four to five packs a day. It's sad to see people selling to youths at such a young age."

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