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State Suit Alleges Safeway Sold Tobacco to Kids

Attorney general cites 48 violations among stores, including Pavilions and Vons, in last four years.

June 17, 2004|Christiana Sciaudone | Times Staff Writer

California Atty. Gen. Bill Lockyer sued supermarket giant Safeway Inc. on Wednesday for allegedly selling tobacco products to children or not posting warning signs against underage sales.

Lockyer, joined in the suit by Los Angeles City Atty. Rocky Delgadillo, said sting operations found that Safeway-owned stores, including Vons, Pavilions and Pak N' Save stores, had the highest rate of violations of laws designed to prevent teens younger than 18 from smoking.

Ralphs, Albertsons and Raley's stores were also cited for violations, but only Safeway refused to work with the city or state to "correct their deficiencies" and comply with the law, according to Delgadillo's office.

"Among the large grocery stores, the least cooperative chain with very substantial illegal sales is the Safeway group," Lockyer said at a news conference outside a Vons store in Santa Monica. "Other chains have problems as well. There's nobody perfect.... [But] in the case of Safeway, it appears to be part of the corporate culture."

A spokesman for Safeway, David Bowlby, called the lawsuit unjustified.

"The employees who staff our stores are committed to the communities they serve and work very hard to comply with all state and local laws prohibiting underage tobacco sales," Bowlby said in a prepared statement. "We believe our record of compliance regarding tobacco sales does not justify being singled out in this instance. We invest a great deal of time and resources to ensure our employees are well-trained and understand how seriously we take our responsibility in this matter."

He said the company had not been aware of the lawsuit until the government attorneys held a news conference Wednesday afternoon. Bowlby added that Safeway intends to address the allegations in the complaint "in detail" and work with Lockyer's office to resolve any "legitimate" concerns.

According to Delgadillo, other chains have taken more steps seeking to stop illegal sales to underage teenagers, including implementing training programs for sales clerks and making sure they check identification for those who appear to be under the legal age.

Out of the 158 investigations at Safeway-owned stores statewide between July 2000 and May 2004, the attorney general's office allegedly found 48 instances of sales to underage buyers, officials said. Some of those stores were also cited for not having adequate warning signs or not displaying a tobacco sales permit. In the stings, underage teenagers did not use fake IDs.

Other chains had lower rates of violations, but state and city officials said Wednesday that they did not have those figures immediately available.

In the lawsuit, filed in Los Angeles County Superior Court, the state is seeking an injunction against Safeway stores to require them to curb the sales of tobacco products to teens. It is also seeking civil penalties of up to $2,500 for each violation. The city attorney's office estimated that fines could reach into the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Edward L. Sweda, senior attorney with the Tobacco Products Liability Project, an organization based at Northeastern University School of Law in Boston that promotes suits against the industry, said that targeting the Safeway chain seems to be a strategic move by the state.

The suit may encourage all chains to "do a better job in the future."

Sweda said the Safeway company may face pressure to settle with the state rather than face unpleasant publicity in a court fight.

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