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THE SAFETY ZONE | JERRY HICKS

Tobacco Licensing Is Next

July 05, 1999|JERRY HICKS

Sell alcohol without a license and you're asking for huge trouble with the law. So why should tobacco be any different?

Don't be surprised to hear much talk like that in Orange County as the new millennium approaches. Tobacco sale licensing is gaining in popularity nationwide as anti-smoking forces step up the battle against the tobacco industry.

The primary goal of licensing is to help cripple tobacco sales to minors. A new study in Woodridge, Ill., shows that some merchant sales to minors decreased from 70% to just 5% after that city adopted such licensing.

Tobacco licensing was brought to my attention by Marilyn Cowan Pritchard, who heads the county's Tobacco Use Prevention Program. She isn't prepared to propose it here yet because it's new and her staff is still gathering data. But Pritchard sees its potential: "If the county adopted tobacco sale licensing, it could serve as a model for the cities here."

Consider this:

Tobacco sale licensing is now the law in 14 states.

In California, San Mateo County passed such a licensing ordinance a year ago. Contra Costa County recently passed a limited licensing law. And more than a dozen California cities within the last year have required retailers to secure tobacco licenses.

Also, a dozen other cities here--Los Angeles and San Francisco among them--have tobacco licensing ordinances under consideration.

"It's the best way to make sure you know who out there is selling," said Leslie Zellers, program director for the Technical Assistance Legal Center in Berkeley. That's a nonprofit group supported through state tobacco tax money, which advises government agencies on tobacco.

Licensing helps keep tabs on violators and where to target tobacco education programs. With violators facing two-year license suspensions in most of these cities, it's a strong deterrent to selling to minors, Zellers said.

All agree that youngsters with cigarettes remains a major issue. Pritchard points to studies that show 30% of school-age children experiment with smoking.

The latest to pass a tobacco sale licensing ordinance is San Ramon, in Contra Costa County. City Clerk Judy McFarlane said the City Council favored it unanimously after heavy lobbying by students from the city's California High School.

The first city to pass such licensing was Rancho Mirage nine years ago, well ahead of everyone else. Rancho Mirage was also the first in California to ban smoking in restaurants. City Councilman Alan Seman, who led the drive for both ordinances, said he had a compelling reason: "We owe it to our children not to let them become addicted to tobacco."

Zellers predicts that tobacco sale licenses will mushroom soon. So why not in Orange County?

Pritchard points out that it usually takes a push from a community group, like the San Ramon students, to get government moving. In Costa Mesa, for example, it was the Campfire Girls who successfully lobbied that City Council to become the first in the county to ban open racks for tobacco sales.

That's a good step. But any city serious about fighting the tobacco industry's influence on children needs to look at licensing as a tool. Zellers and the Technical Assistance Legal Center have a model ordinance ready to hand over. She's just waiting for your city's call.

Readers can reach Jerry Hicks by calling (714) 564-1049 or e-mail to jerry.hicks@latimes.com.

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