Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

January 31, 2000

Lack of enforcement, gender, age affect tobacco sales to minors

Nearly 28 per cent of Ontario merchants are willing to sell tobacco to minors, with most illegal sales being made to girls and older youth, according to research by a University of Guelph professor.

The study by Prof. William O'Grady also reveals that vendors are more willing to make illegal tobacco sales during hours when enforcement officers are less likely to be working. And stores that complied with other tobacco laws -- such as posting signs and asking for identification were the least likely to sell to underage youth, according to the study.

O'Grady, from the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, surveyed more than 400 tobacco retailers in 186 Ontario communities and trained youth volunteers. Working with Dr. Tom Abernathy (Principle Investigator) from Hamilton, and Mark Asbridge from Toronto, the researchers set out to identify and discuss factors influencing the sale of tobacco to underage people in Ontario, the first study of its kind in Canada. The research was funded by the Ontario Ministry of Health, and the findings were published in the January edition of The Canadian Journal of Criminology, with limited results appearing in Tobacco Control this past fall.

"About 90 per cent of all daily smokers begin smoking before the age of 20," O'Grady said. "Because so few people start smoking after their teenage years, prevention efforts are working to curtail access of tobacco products to young people."

The Ontario Tobacco Control Act, enacted in 1994, raised the legal age for tobacco sales to 19. It also increased fines for illegal tobacco sales to $2,000 for a first offence to $25,000 for three or more offences, among the most severe penalties in North America.

"It is well known that youth access to tobacco remains a problem, but what is less clear is why so many merchants break the law, especially when the fines are so costly," O'Grady said.

The study revealed that the strongest influences on illegal tobacco sales were time of day, age of the youth and gender of the youths trying to buy tobacco. Findings include:

-- Male teams were successful only 6 per cent of the time, compared to 14 per cent for female teams and 22 per cent when the team included males and females.

-- Older youths were more successful in their purchase attempts. The probability of sales for youth aged 13 was 2 per ent, with a 10.5-per-cent rate for 15 year olds and a 65-per-cent rate for 18-year-olds.

-- Youth trying to buy cigarettes in the morning were only successful 6 per cent of the time, compared with an 18 per cent success rate in the afternoon and a 21-per- cent success rate after 6 p.m.

-- If a merchant complied with other tobacco related laws such as posting signs and asking for identification, the likelihood of illegal sales was only 2.5 per cent, compared to 61 per cent when such compliance was lacking.

-- Overall, 27.6 per cent of Ontario merchants were willing to sell tobacco products to minors, with gas stations and convenience stores having the highest "agreeing to sell" percentages at 33 and 26 per cent, respectively.

The study included pairs of trained volunteers aged 13 to 18 who visited pre-selected stores while an adult waited outside. "Care was taken to make sure that there would be little doubt that minors were involved. In other words, all of the youth appeared to be under the legal age," O'Grady said. Parental permission was obtained for youths under age 18.

"If a vendor had reason to believe the youth was of age, they were more likely to sell the product. This explains why older youth and females who mature earlier than males were more successful," O'Grady said. Tobacco enforcement officers generally work from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. so merchants are at greater risk of being charged during the day than in the evening, he added.

The study suggests remedies such as passing laws to require identification checks for anyone who appears to be under the age of 25, and extending enforcement into evening hours.

Contact: Prof. William O'Grady Department of Sociology and Anthropology (Prof. O'Grady prefers to receive emails and will phone back reporters).

For media questions, contact Lori Hunt, Communications and Public Affairs, (519) 824-4120, Ext. 3338.

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