About 200 undercover youth decoys are helping state public health officials catch tobacco retailers who sell any type of tobacco products to minors.
The decoys are 15 to 20 years old and their identities are kept confidential, according to the California Department of Public Health.
The NBC4 I-Team obtained videos of these undercover operations, conducted as part of the state's Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement program.
In California, a person must be 21 years old to buy any tobacco products, including e-cigarettes and vapes. The decoys work with 24 peace officers, who regularly participate in tobacco enforcement activities, a CDPH spokesperson explains.
The decoys are recruited volunteers and receive a small stipend for their participation, according to the CDPH. Investigations are conducted at shops and businesses that have been targeted by public complaints for selling tobacco products to minors. The CDPH fines a tobacco retailer who sells a tobacco product to the underage decoy.
CDPH says while the clerks asked for ID in all three of the videos reviewed by the NBC4 I-Team, in two cases, tobacco products were sold to an underage buyer.
Since 2015, there have been 700 of these types of investigations in the city of Los Angeles. The City Attorney's Office issues tobacco permit suspensions to shops caught breaking the law.
The I-Team analyzed data provided by the City Attorney's Office dating back to 2015 and found a dramatic increase in 30-day suspensions for selling tobacco products to minors spiked in 2017, which fell from 106 in 2017 to 86 in 2018, a spokesman said. No businesses in the city of Los Angeles have had their permits revoked for selling to minors since 2015.
In 2016 and 2017, city officials observed a significant rise in the number of new tobacco and vaping shops opening up throughout Los Angeles. New retailers may not be well-informed about tobacco retailing laws, and also may lack stringent in-store policies and sufficient employee training, according to a spokesperson for the City Attorney's Office.
These factors are believed to have led to an overall high illegal sales rates and the corresponding suspensions, which fell from 106 in 2017 to 86 in 2018, a spokesperson said. No businesses in the city of Los Angeles have had their licenses revoked for selling to minors since 2015.
The number of Tobacco Permits issued in the city of Los Angeles according to the City Attorney's Office:
- 2015: 4,770
- 2016: 4,652
- 2017: 4,413
- 2018 4,204
Tougher tobacco sales enforcement is top of mind for many city leaders across Los Angeles County. This week, the Beverly Hills city council proposed banning all tobacco sales in that city. The ban would be the first of its kind in the U.S.
Beverly Hills already bans the sale of flavored tobacco products.
The city of Los Angeles is considering restricting the sale of flavored tobacco, and the U.S. Food & Drug Administration is proposing to limit the sale of flavored tobacco products to "adult only" stores, which restrict entry to patrons 18 years and older.
For additional information about youth decoys, please visit decoy.org.