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Teens' Cigarette Buy Packs Lesson

Awareness: Minors show stores how easily they can buy tobacco in a program sponsored by United Way and Camp Fire Boys and Girls.


WESTMINSTER — Teenager Jenny Mejia learned a troubling lesson outside the classroom Friday morning: It's as easy as ABC to buy cigarettes even if you're underage.

"It was just like buying a pack of gum," said Mejia, 16, a student at Cesar E. Chavez Continuation High School in Santa Ana. Clerks "said 'OK' and that was it. I thought it was going to be a lot harder."

Mejia was one of several youths under age 18--the legal age to purchase tobacco in California--who bought dozens of packs of cigarettes at 100 stores as part of a program aimed at raising awareness about tobacco sales to minors.

The activity was carried out by 45 students who fanned out to five cities under the auspices of the Camp Fire Boys and Girls and United Way of Orange County. The umbrella charity group sponsored the cigarette program and 49 other community projects as part of Days of Caring, a two-day kickoff of its annual fund-raising drive.

The tobacco sales project, carried out in Westminster, Garden Grove, Huntington Beach, Fountain Valley and Santa Ana, marked the first time the Camp Fire Boys and Girls and the United Way were involved in such an event, officials at both organizations said.

The Orange County district attorney's office and police departments in the cities approved the exercise in advance, said Todd Hanson, executive director of Camp Fire. No arrests or citations were issued as a result of the operation, Camp Fire officials said.

"This was designed to educate, not to prosecute," said Jeff Rocke, vice president of United Way of Orange County, which will give Camp Fire Boys and Girls about $80,000 this year. After the cigarette purchases were made, students informed clerks that they had just sold tobacco to a minor, said Maria Chavez-Wilcox, president of United Way of Orange County.

The United Way, which helps fund 1,000 programs and 100 organizations in Orange County, is attempting to raise $18.4 million this year, a 5% increase over last year, officials said.

During the Days of Caring event, which ends today, the United Way sponsors dozens of activities, including feeding the homeless, painting houses for the elderly and taking battered women and children on field trips.

An estimated 3 million U.S. teenagers are smokers, with 90% starting the habit by age 19 and 60% by 14.

A statewide scientific survey last September indicated that one out of three retailers has sold tobacco products to minors. Further, it reported that more than 90% of minors were successful in buying cigarettes from vending machines.

During Friday's Camp Fire program, half the stores visited randomly in Westminster, Garden Grove and Huntington Beach sold cigarettes to underage students, Hanson said. But in Fountain Valley and Santa Ana, only 20% of the stores sold cigarettes to minors.

Camp Fire Boys and Girls attributed the difference among the cities to the group's previous education efforts about tobacco sales to teens in Fountain Valley and Santa Ana. Since January 1995, Camp Fire high school volunteers have conducted programs similar to Friday's effort in stores in those cities.

But never before have the students actually purchased cigarettes, said Camp Fire officials. Instead, the students would inform merchants about the laws regarding tobacco sales to youth after clerks had agreed to sell the cigarettes, but before any money changed hands.

Loren Padilla, 16, and Daisy Sanchez, 17, said they volunteered for the Camp Fire program in hopes of becoming role models for their peers.

"I go out to parties and all of my friends smoke," Sanchez said. "They think they look cool with a cigarette in their hand and smoking.

"But I want them to know that it's OK to say 'no' and that they can quit," added Sanchez, who is trying to help her best friend quit.

Padilla said it hasn't been easy giving up smoking about a pack a day. "But the more I learn about it, it makes me realize how much damage smoking can do to your lungs and health," said Padilla, adding that a big reason she quit was because her 11-year-old brother picked up the habit.

"I have to set an example," Padilla said. "I just want to make [teenagers] realize that cigarettes are bad for your health, and that what they are doing is wrong."

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