Penalties For Selling Tobacco To A Minor (And How To Prevent Them)

If you run a convenience store, gas station, or other retail location, the risk of selling tobacco to a minor is a headache that comes with the territory.

Yes, you’ve put up the signs.

Yes, you’ve trained your staff.

Yes, you've tried “We Card” and the paper calendars that you have to remember to buy and update every year.

And yes, you’re diligent about your checkout process.

But all it takes is one mistake on a busy night to get slapped with a fine and a misdemeanor.

And unfortunately, it’s easier than you think.

Selling Tobacco To A Minor: An Ever-Present Risk

The average nationwide violation rate for selling tobacco to a minor has been hovering around 10% now for over a decade (9.6% as last reported by the FFY 2013 Annual Synar Reports).

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In fact, since 2011 retailer violation rates have been increasing, and the FDA is stepping up their game.

And because in a number of states, violation rates are still upwards of 12%, not only has federal enforcement increased, but strong enforcement is being conducted at state and local levels as well.

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To complicate the issue further, many states are raising the legal age to purchase tobacco to 21, increasing the population of buyers that need to be screened and declined. And the burden of prevention of underage use primarily falls on the retailer - you.

The fines and inspections keep on coming...

In 2017, there were 20,096 total violations for selling tobacco to underage buyers. And the map below shows violations across the US just in the last 5 months of the year.

Out of 160,694 inspections, that's a 12.5% failure rate.

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The bottom line is: if you sell tobacco, your establishment is going to get inspected this year.

Assuming you change nothing, you have a 12.5% chance of failing that inspection.

Is that a chance you want to take?

And the penalties for selling tobacco to a minor are only increasing

For the business owners who do get caught and penalized, you will be cited and fined. And it's not just you, but your employee as well.

For example, in states like California, the person selling tobacco to a minor is cited for a misdemeanor and pays the fine, while the owner may also be cited for the same infraction.

After the third violation, there may be additional penalties imposed, including increased fines, and even suspension or revocation of your tobacco sales license. The FDA calls this a "no-tobacco-sale order" (NTSO), and it can be devastating for your business. From the FDA Guidance for Tobacco Retailers documentation:

If FDA finds that a retailer has committed “repeated violations” of the restrictions on the sale and distribution of tobacco products promulgated under section 906(d) of the FD&C Act (including restrictions codified at part 1140) at a particular retail outlet, then FDA may seek to impose an NTSO on that retailer prohibiting the sale of tobacco products at that outlet.

And this is the criteria they use:

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No legitimate business is intentionally out to sell cigarettes or other tobacco products to a minor. And yet it still happens.

Why does it happen?

On the face of it, figuring out whether someone is under 18 or under 21 is easy. For example, just use the "minus 20, plus 2" method as suggested by the California Retailers and Youth Tobacco Laws training presentation:

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Sure, easy enough to do sitting at your desk with ample time and no distractions. But think about the situation your employees often find themselves in.

According to a NACS study, an average convenience store transaction takes 21 seconds for the customer to complete the payment. That's 21 seconds to collect the ID, decode it, calculate the customer's age, decide on the sale/no sale, ring it up, collect the money, and provide the items to the customer.

In reality it's less then 5 seconds to look at the ID and make a decision on their age. And that's just on average. Try doing that when you add in long lines, grumpy customers in a hurry, fatigue, late nights... its easy to see why so many mistakes happen.
Sure you can put out a new sign for your employees each day, but that means you have to remember to update it. And when it gets busy there’s no guarantee your employee will even have the time to check.

Further, refusing a sale is actually difficult. And often times, especially with new employees, they don’t know what to say.
All it takes is one mistake. And to be honest, it's surprising they don't happen more frequently.

Minor Decliner’s Age Verification Scanner Prevents Fines for Selling Cigarettes to Minors

Our age verification scanner system is specifically designed to solve this problem. To ensure a fast, legal sale, every time. Without the hassle or risk of having your employees do mental math.

 When you scan a driver’s license with our ID scanner

It announces the pass or fail result in less than a second.

With the ability to scan any US or Canadian license, this process:

  • Prevents mistakes that inevitably happen when the store gets busy.
  • Provides a fast ID check which reduces wait times and keeps customers paying quickly and efficiently.
  • Will clearly announce underage patrons, which helps avoid potential confrontations and issues with customers (the system says "no" not the sales associate).

And the authorities agree: ID scanners really work!

The FDA and local authorities love ID scanners for tobacco retailers

The good news: both states and FDA are on board with ID scanners as a solution to this problem. Again from the FDA Guidance for Tobacco Retailers documentation:

“In determining whether to impose the NTSO or reduce the period of time FDA seeks to impose in the NTSO, FDA will generally consider whether a retailer has taken effective steps to prevent the sale of tobacco products in violation of the minimum age requirements, including:

  • adopting and enforcing a written policy against sales to minors;
  • informing its employees of all applicable laws;
  • establishing disciplinary sanctions for employee noncompliance; and
  • requiring its employees to verify age by way of photographic identification or electronic scanning device.”

In fact, Since 2010, 11 states now have Affirmative Defense ID scanner provisions laws (Arizona, Connecticut, Texas, Nebraska, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Utah, West Virginia). So if you’re using a scanner, you’re not liable.

Additional features to protect your business

In addition, our system:

  • Includes an “anti-passback” feature. This will alert you to multiple scans from the same ID within a specified period of time, and prevent customers who have legally purchased from you from passing their already-scanned ID back to someone younger to try to purchase tobacco.
  • Allows you to flag troublemakers. If an individual tries to purchase tobacco underage, your employee can identify them as “BANNED” within the system to be immediately recognized later on if that same ID is scanned.
  • Provides compliance logging in the event you are penalized. The Compliance Audit data logging feature can be set to automatically record all ID scans made, with a timestamp and unique identifiers. These records are able to comply with every state’s PII laws and can provide supporting evidence in the event you have to go to court.
  • Can easily adjust the legal age of purchase. State laws change, so our system allows you to quickly and easily edit the legal age of purchase so that you can continue to comply with your local requirements.

It’s designed to make your employee’s lives easier, and most especially protect your business from underage tobacco sales.

Order Your Minor Decliner ID Scanner And Protect Your Business Today

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"It is eye catching and does very good job to protect the business and employees to selling alcoholic beverages and tobacco products without struggling to figure out the age, I love it." ~ Narinderjit S.

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888-310-4001

FAQs About Selling Tobacco To A Minor

What is a tobacco sting?

The Food and Drug Administration as well as local authorities routinely recruit minors to go into stores to buy cigarettes or other tobacco products and determine if they are compliant with the law.

What happens if you fail a tobacco sting?

If you've been inspected by an FDA Undercover Buy Inspection compliance check, you'll receive a Compliance Check Inspection (CCI) notice in the mail if there has been a violation. Then, depending on whether you have previously violated before, you will receive anywhere from a warning letter to a fine, or worst case an NTSO. These results will then be posted to the FDA website and you will be subject to re-inspection at a future date.

How much is the fine for selling tobacco to a minor?

Fines vary widely state by state. Federal fines start at $250 and can be as high as $10,000 for multiple offenses, not to mention the potential for an NTSO.

Any additional questions?

Feel free to contact us directly at 888-310-4001 or ron@minordecliner.com.