On New Year's Day the party ended for Alaska merchants caught selling tobacco to underage smokers.
It's part of a host of new laws that took effect Jan. 1 that changed existing laws to compensate victims of crimes, lower fees for some commercial fishing permits and increase the speed at which some health-insurance claims are handled.
The anti-tobacco law imposes mandatory fines and other penalties on stores caught selling tobacco products to people younger than 18 years.
The measure was passed by the Legislature in 2001 to address the high rate of teen smokers in Alaska and to preserve a $1.5 million federal substance-abuse grant, said the lawmaker who sponsored the provision.
"The laws are not to hurt people, but they are trying to make people understand we have a problem," said Rep. John Harris, a Valdez Republican. "We have a very serious problem with people selling (tobacco) to minors."
Under the new law, merchants would face a $300 fine and a mandatory 20-day suspension of their tobacco endorsement if a clerk is convicted of selling tobacco to minors.
Fines and penalties would increase with each subsequent violation over a two-year period, culminating with a $2,500 fine and a one-year suspension for a fourth offense.
Previously, the state had the discretion to suspend a store owners' tobacco license for 45 days for the first offense but imposed no fines. Fines of up to $300 remain on the books for clerks who sell cigarettes to minors.
Elmer Lindstrom of the state Department of Health and Social Services said the new law is intended to reduce the number of appeals. It makes suspensions mandatory unless the store owner chooses to fight the suspension.
The law also increases the cost of a tobacco license from $25 to $100.
Alaska had until July 2001 to implement a plan to reduce the incidents of teen smoking or risk losing $1.5 million in federal block grants from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Other portions of the law took effect previously.
States are required to conduct random inspections using decoy buyers to ensure no more than 20 percent of the stores are in violation. Alaska's rate was 40 percent under a 2000 inspection, Lindstrom said.
Other laws that take effect on Jan. 1:
Make changes in the fees paid by commercial fishermen. Among other things, it repeals a provision of state law that required out-of-state commercial fishermen to pay three times the rate of a resident permit.
Generally require a health-care insurer to pay or deny group health insurance claims within 30 days and pay interest on a claim that is not paid in time.
Add the Bristol Bay Salmon Classic as a form of charitable gaming to fund a scholarship for young people in the economically depressed area.
Make changes to the law allowing for victim's compensation. The same measure established an Office of Victim's Rights.
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