Underage smokers are finding it relatively easy to obtain cheap cigarettes at many stores throughout Santa Barbara County, according to the results of recent undercover operations.

The operations by the Santa Barbara County Health Department, sometimes with the help of local law enforcement, revealed high rates of cigarette sales to minors in most local cities, although the rate fell to zero in Buellton and Solvang.

Of 275 stores surveyed in the county, 17 percent sold buy cigarettes to an underage decoy, nearly three times the statewide average of 6 percent, according to Dawn Dunn, Tobacco Prevention Program administrator for the Health Department.

Dunn called the results “disturbing” because they indicate that minors have such ready access to cigarettes. Under federal law, she said, store clerks are required to check the identification of every customer under 27 who purchases cigarettes products.

However, cigarettes online sales to minors varied significantly from last year’s rates in several cities — most notably in Buellton, where the rate dropped from a county-worst 40 percent last year to zero, and in Solvang, where it fell from 25 percent to zero.

The underage decoys attempted purchases at five stores in Solvang and 12 in Buellton, but no one sold tobacco to them.

In Lompoc, sales more than doubled from 14 percent in 2010 to 31 percent this year, the highest rate in the county, according to the heath department, and jumped in Goleta from 6 percent to 19 percent.

Lompoc’s 31 percent rate resulted from nine of 29 store clerks selling tobacco to minors.

Santa Barbara, Goleta, Carpinteria, Guadalupe, and unincorporated parts of the county also exceeded the state average, with rates of 14 to 19 percent, and Santa Maria’s sales rate of 6 percent matched the state average.

Lompoc Police Chief Tim Dabney questioned the accuracy of the statistics based on the survey methods. He pointed out that nearly the same number of stores were tested in Lompoc as in Santa Maria, a much larger city, and added that the effectiveness of different stores’ control systems can vary.

“It’s really not a great comparison — and the decoys vary,” he said.

Still, Dabney said, he was not happy with the results in Lompoc.

“That’s very discouraging. I would like to see it back down to zero,” he said. “In light of the perception of this data — whether it’s statistically accurate or not — we’re stepping up these sting operations.”

Dunn said that store clerks caught in stings conducted by police can be subjected to a $200 fine for the first offense, $500 for the second and $1,000 for the third. While store owners do not pay the fine, they can be disciplined.

Store owners can be prohibited from selling tobacco for 30 days after the first offense in jurisdic-tions, such as the county, which enact such licensing provisions. That penalty can be cut in half if the store owner pays $1,000, Dunn said.

When the sting is conducted by the health department — which calls it a youth survey — no citation is involved even for a “consummated buy,” she added.

Late last year, the county Board of Supervisors revamped the ordinance that regulates retail tobacco sales in unincorporated parts of the county, strengthening penalties for sales to minors.

While sales in unincorporated areas increased slightly this year, health officials said they believe the tougher law will ultimately reduce sales to minors.

“It takes time for new regulations to have the desired impact,” said Dunn. “There is definitely a learning curve here.

We’ve seen this in other communities around the state. Several cities are now looking at adopting the new tobacco ordinance, so we’re optimistic that sales to minors will decline in future years.”

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