Court ruling halts tobacco checks in Alaska

State loses money to monitor who is selling smokes to kids

Posted: Thursday, March 23, 2000

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Washington will hamper tobacco control efforts in Alaska.

The state has been informed it will lose a federal contract of about $200,000 a year to check whether businesses are selling tobacco to minors.

The contract and its funding came from the federal Food and Drug Administration, according to Dr. Peter Nakamura, director of the state Public Health Division. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this week that the FDA cannot regulate tobacco.

That brought an abrupt end to tobacco-sale investigations, said Larry Bussone, the state's FDA coordinator.

``I got a message yesterday that said `Cease and desist and have all your contract officers in the field cease and desist,''' Bussone said Wednesday.

The state did more than 1,000 undercover checks of about 70 businesses since 1998 under the contract, including stores in Juneau, Ketchikan and Sitka, Bussone said.

The program wasn't in place long enough to statistically prove it was making a difference, Bussone said. But he thought the inspections were having the desired effect.

While 36.7 percent of businesses were found selling to minors in 1999, so far this year that percentage was 32.2 percent.

The state subcontracted with several police departments and individual officers to do some of the

inspections and had state employees do others.

The state contract was to enforce an FDA regulation, and because of the Supreme Court decision, that regulation can no longer be enforced.

The state has its own law on tobacco sales, restricting access to people under 19. The problem is the state doesn't have much money set aside to enforce its own law.

With the contract coming to an end, the only funds left for investigation will be about $14,500 in state tobacco tax money that's being used to do compliance checks in Anchorage and in the Fairbanks area, Bussone said. That will pay for about 100 compliance checks, about a tenth of what the federal program was doing.

The Juneau Police Department has done some local compliance checks in recent years. Lt. Ron Forneris said it was somewhat successful and may be resumed.

The Legislature for this year provided about $1.4 million for a tobacco control program, Bussone said, but most of that money has been targeted at other efforts, such as education, a media campaign and smoking cessation programs.

The state now may want to look at shifting some of that money to law enforcement, Bussone said, although tobacco control advocates have said the $1.4 million was already several million dollars short of what was needed for an effective state tobacco control program.

Bussone said it seems unlikely in a year where lawmakers are trying to cut the budget that a request for more money for tobacco control would be approved.

Nakamura said he didn't know whether the state will ask the Legislature to provide more money for the program.

``It's a little early yet,'' he said. ``I'd say we would seek money from anywhere we could get it.''

Rep. Eldon Mulder, an Anchorage Republican who heads the House Finance Committee, said no legislators want to see minors smoking. However, he said, he had just become aware of the problem and didn't know whether more state money might be provided.



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