If a bill just shy of enough support for passage in the state Legislature becomes law, the folks who peddle cigarettes to kids from the back of an ice cream truck could get a lucky break.
AB 1666 probably would preempt the efforts of cities like Los Angeles to crack down on merchants who illegally sell cigarettes to kids and instead put all the authority to regulate underage tobacco sales into the hands of the state. On its face that doesn't sound so sinister. The measure, originally drafted by Sen. Steve Peace (D-El Cajon), also would raise the state's tobacco tax. The resulting price increase would be a disincentive to cigarette use.
But consider this: The bill would transfer the power to curb underage cigarette sales to the state's Bureau of Equalization, a tax assessment agency, and the Department of Health Services. Neither is staffed or equipped to monitor the thousands of retail outlets across the state that sell cigarettes.
State law bars cigarette sales to children under 18. Los Angeles, like many cities, has put new teeth into enforcement in recent years. A city ordinance requires merchants who sell tobacco products to obtain a permit and dispatches undercover inspectors to ensure they don't sell to children. A telephone hotline, (888) 333-0730, also yields tips from the public about gas stations and stores near schools that illegally sell to kids, as well as ice cream trucks, street-corner sellers who carry their inventory in backpacks and other mobile vendors. A unit in the city attorney's office goes after violators. Repeat offenses result in the suspension and even revocation of city permits.
This approach works because local prosecutors know the city far better than bureaucrats in Sacramento. But if Peace's bill passes, the city attorney's unit could be out of business, to be replaced by who knows what. That may be just what the tobacco industry wants.
Peace's bill has moved with the stealth and deception that are hallmarks of the industry. Peace originally drafted the bill as a stand-alone measure, but in recent weeks he amended it into another, faster-moving bill. The bill could be debated in a weekend session today, and lawmakers frazzled by the end-of-the-session crush of bills may not take the time to examine it closely. They should, and they should vote no.