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County ponders tobacco sales fee

Retailers would pay $235 a year to fund an antismoking program. Foes say it would be a burden for small stores.

December 11, 2007|Jean-Paul Renaud | Times Staff Writer

Merchants in unincorporated areas of Los Angeles County would be required to buy a $235 annual permit to sell cigarettes and other tobacco products, under a proposal the Board of Supervisors is scheduled to act on today. Backers say the proposal would strengthen efforts to keep minors from smoking, which county health officials say is a ballooning problem. Critics say its main effect would be to hurt law-abiding mom-and-pop retailers already hurt by high taxes.

Officials estimate the fee would affect roughly 1,000 merchants and raise about $235,000 a year. The money would pay for sting operations in about 200 stores a year and fund antismoking campaigns aimed at those under 18.

At least three of the five supervisors have said they support the measure.

"This is something that's consistent with our public health mandate," said Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. "We need to get to the point where selling tobacco to a minor is as taboo as selling liquor to a minor."

State law forbids the sale of tobacco and related paraphernalia to minors.

Although about 10% of stores statewide are estimated to sell tobacco to minors, health officials say that number is three times higher in unincorporated areas of L.A. County.

Proponents say the proposal, which would require every store to display a county permit authorizing it to sell tobacco, would be a powerful weapon against unlawful sales. County officials also would use the permits to build a database that would track every tobacco retailer in unincorporated areas -- making it easier to monitor whether they are heeding the law.

But some merchants say it's a bad idea.

"It's $235 here, $200 there," said Alfonso Rodriguez, co-owner of Mendoza's Market in East Los Angeles. "Then it becomes $5,000. Now, with this new tax, I'll have to raise the price of cigarettes."

Rodriguez, whose small market has been in the neighborhood seven years, says he knows his clientele well: the regulars, fellow store owners -- even the occasional teenager trying to pass as an adult.

"I know most people that come in here," he said, standing near a few stacks of cigarettes priced at $5 a pack. "If I see they look young, I'll ID them."

Neighborhood stores usually bear the brunt of most taxes, opponents of the proposal argue.

"The family-owned businesses are the ones that hurt the most," said Raul Cortes of the San Diego-based Neighborhood Market Assn. "Most of the time, the fee doesn't correspond with the size of the business."

Los Angeles County would not be the first to enact a tobacco permit system. Of the county's 88 cities, 12, including Los Angeles and Pasadena, levy an annual permit fee on their tobacco-selling stores.

"We not only had a need to get the illegal sales rate down, but we also had a need to step up the enforcement," said Statice Wilmore, coordinator of Pasadena's Tobacco Control Program. "If we can get [minors] to not have easy access to the product, then that will help alleviate the problem of underage smoking."

Since Pasadena enacted its permit fee three years ago, sales to minors have dropped from 23% to 6% of total tobacco sales, according to city enforcement statistics. City officials raised the annual cost of the permit from the original $135 to the $218 in effect today.

Los Angeles saw a 10% drop in illegal sales between 2004 and 2005. The city has charged $208 annually for a permit since enacting the requirement two years ago. "We're able to capture the trends, the types of stores that are selling illegally to minors," Nora Manzanilla, coordinator of the city's Tobacco Enforcement Program, said of the database for which the permit fees have paid.

The county proposal would include funds to hire two employees, one at more than $101,000 a year and the other at nearly $75,000. The employees would manage the sting operations and coordinate antismoking campaigns.

Officials would consider whether to raise the tax in two years, according to Linda Aragon, director of the county's Tobacco Control and Prevention Program.

"This is typical of taxes," said Tony Bell, a spokesman for Supervisor Mike Antonovich, who has not said whether he will vote for the proposal.

"This is an important effort, but we need to find out if we can do this with existing resources, without hitting small businesses with additional taxes," Bell said.

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jp.renaud@latimes.com

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