Retail clerks, be forewarned: Get ready to check the ID of a baby-faced customer trying to buy e-cigarettes, or even somebody who may look 30 but you suspect might be younger than 18.
Inspections to check compliance with Wisconsin law banning the sale of tobacco products to people younger than 18 are expanding to include electronic cigarettes, said Alison Glodowski, La Crosse County Health Department educator.
The initiative is the result of the burgeoning popularity of e-cigarettes, said Glodowski, who also is the Wisconsin Wins coordinator for La Crosse, Buffalo, Crawford, Jackson, Monroe, Trempealeau and Vernon counties.
Wisconsin Wins, shortened to WI Wins, is a science-based program that the state’s Health Services Department began in 2002 to prevent youth access to tobacco. It includes contracting with local partners to investigate retailers and report illegal sales to law enforcement.
The 2014 Wisconsin Youth Tobacco Survey found that nearly 8 percent of high school students in the Badger State are using e-cigarettes, a figure that has tripled in the past year, Glodowski said.
“In the past year, e-cigarettes were an issue that we hadn’t been checking,” she said. “But the landscape is changing — we have seen more youths trying them.”
Glodowski leads inspections of retailers in the seven counties with the help of teens in the 7 C’s Health Initiative Coalition. Two underage youths at a time go into stores — one to try to buy tobacco products and the other to observe for safety, she said.
Last year, teams that Glodowski and two other health educators led found violations in nearly a quarter of the 432 inspections in the seven-county area last year, including 33 illegal sales among 190 checks in La Crosse County. The products range from cigarettes and cigars to smokeless products such as chewing tobacco, snuff, snus and small bags of tobacco that eliminate the need to expectorate, allowing youths to use them on the sly, even in school.
Inspectors turn offending retailers’ names over to law enforcement to decide whether to pursue the seller, she said. In La Crosse County, first-time offenders usually receive a warning, and second-time miscreants receive citations addressed to the retailer, the seller or both, she said.
Also called vaping machines, e-cigs typically contain nicotine, which is considered the primary villain, but some do not, she said.
“Nicotine has a lasting impact on adolescent brain development. Nicotine use can lead to cognitive and behavioral impairments, including effects on working memory and attention,” she said.
While e-cig proponents contend that the products are harmless and provide an effective route to quit smoking, Glodowski said, “There are a lot of unknown factors about emissions and juices.”
Local health officials, including Dr. Todd Mahr, an allergy, asthma and immunology specialist at Gundersen Health System, dispute the notion that e-cigs are benign. Last year, Mahr praised the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for proposing regulations for the devices.
As the Onalaska Common Council debated an ordinance to ban e-cigarettes from public common areas last year, Mahr insisted that they contain harmful chemicals, including known carcinogens, and that they could trigger asthma attacks in bystanders.
Glodowski and other health officials are concerned that tobacco companies target young people by producing candy- and fruit-flavored e-cigs, such as cotton candy, chocolate and watermelon.
“We’re really going to start gearing up for the fall” to ramp up checks, she said.
“The No. 1 goal is prevention of teens even starting to use tobacco,” she said.
WI Wins and Glodowski also provide educational programs for businesses and employees to train them about products and how to check identification, she said.
“Sometimes, clerks don’t know the difference between those that have nicotine and those that don’t,” she said.
Statewide, inspections found that 6.5 percent of retailers had sold tobacco products to minors, according to WI Wins, while only seven counties — Ashland, Crawford, Iowa, Kenosha, Lincoln, Menominee and Racine counties — had no violations.