IRVINE — The long arm of the federal Food and Drug Administration reached into Steve Bildstein's booth at Irvine's Campus Gasoline station on Friday, and he's not very pleased about it.
New federal regulations now require Bildstein and other vendors to make tobacco-buying customers age 26 or younger prove that they are not minors. In essence, the regulations force clerks to make adults prove they aren't kids, or face potential fines.
"It's a hassle," said Bildstein, 33, assistant manager of the station. "People get [ticked] off. And it's not going to make a difference. If people want to get cigarettes, they're going to get them anyway."
The new regulations went into effect Friday even as questions arose over how they will be enforced. An FDA spokesman said it's unlikely stores or clerks will be prosecuted for failing to ask for identification--even though that's the cornerstone of the new federal anti-smoking campaign.
"Technically, it is a violation," said Brad Stone, an FDA spokesman in Washington. "But in practical terms, we're trying to prevent underage sales. So the penalties issued by and large will be for underage sales."
The federal penalties include a $250 fine and, for repeat offenders, possible revocation of licenses to sell tobacco products. The federal penalties are in addition to California fines of $200 for a first offense of selling tobacco to a minor, $500 for a second offense and $1,000 for a third offense.
Anti-smoking activists in Orange County say stepped-up campaigns against sales of tobacco products to minors are needed. A recent annual state study found that minors sent to buy tobacco products in Orange County stores were successful 43% of the time, said Marilyn Pritchard, coordinator of the Tobacco Use Prevention Program of the Orange County Health Care Agency.
"There's a significant problem," Pritchard said. "That's wholly unacceptable when four out of 10 kids, 14 and 15 years old, can buy cigarettes with no problem in Orange County."
Pritchard said her program conducted its own surveys about five months ago, sending minors into stores in five communities to try to buy cigarettes. If the clerk rang up the sale, the teens were instructed to say that they forgot their money and leave.
The minors had mixed successes. In Santa Ana, they were able to buy tobacco products 27% of the time; in Huntington Beach, 64%; in Garden Grove, 30%; in Westminster, 54%; and in Fountain Valley, 39%.
Stores that refused to sell tobacco later received letters of congratulations from TUPP. The other stores were sent letters warning them of the violation, and then a follow-up visit was made by TUPP officials and volunteers who discussed the hazards of smoking with store owners and clerks.
Then another attempt to buy tobacco products was made. Names of stores with repeat offenses were sent to local police for follow-up sting operations, Pritchard said.
In a related program, Pritchard said, there was a marked decrease in successful buys by minors at Westminster and Garden Grove stores after similar interventions. In 26 Westminster stores, minors were able to buy tobacco in 14 instances before the intervention and only five instances after the intervention. In Garden Grove, the minors were successful initially in seven of 23 stores and only two after the intervention.
"Unfortunately, this change doesn't last unless there's a follow-up sting operation by police," Pritchard said.
While local police departments do most of the enforcement in Orange County, exactly who will enforce the new federal regulations remains unclear.
"It's primarily going to be the FDA's responsibility, but in carrying it out, we will work closely with state and local authorities involved in tobacco control to try to build up on their existing efforts," said Stone, the FDA spokesman. "We will be reaching out state by state with local authorities."
But for some vendors, the new regulations and enforcement will make little difference in the way they work.
"There probably won't be any change for us," said Linda Norton, co-owner of the Still Liquor Store, across from UCI. "It's silly, but it's like when they put the tags on the kegs."
Those tags are required by state officials, who also demand clerks keep a written record of the buyers of kegs of beer, so that liability can be established in the event underage drinkers are caught at keg parties.
Clerks at the Still, Norton said, already are aggressive when it comes to asking for identification.
"For liquor, if they don't look 30, we card them," she said, adding that similar standards are applied to cigarette buyers.
At Campus Gasoline, located midway between UCI and Irvine's University High School, attendant Alfred Edwards said the new regulations won't change the way he approaches his job.
"I pretty much feel like I can tell," said Edwards, 25, who is studying biology and psychology at UCI. "I ID from about 23."
Often, he said, underage buyers are easy to pick out. They tend to walk up to the gas station rather than drive in. And they're friendlier than the average customer.
"You can tell, especially the girls," Edwards said. "They come up and try to flirt."