Owners of stores caught selling tobacco to minors now face fines

Business owners in the county will face fines and possible suspension of their tobacco sales licenses if they are caught selling tobacco to minors, under new rules approved Tuesday. 

Retail businesses caught selling tobacco to underage decoys now will go through an administrative hearing procedure conducted by Dr. Penny Borenstein, county health officer, rather than being prosecuted by the district attorney. County supervisors approved the change at their Tuesday meeting.

Borenstein said the county ordinance needed to be revised because the district attorney has been unwilling to prosecute business owners, largely because of the inability to prove intent on their part to sell to minors. As a result, only store clerks have been fined from $200 to $1,000 for selling cigarettes to minors.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the goal of the new rule is to reduce violations rather than punish retailers. Deputies from his office supervise the decoys carrying out compliance checks.

Under the new rules, business owners will be fined $1,000 for the first violation and will have their tobacco licenses suspended for 30 days. 

However, an owner can apply to Borenstein to have the suspension rescinded if the business completes a diversion program that consists of onsite employee education about the rules governing tobacco sales.

“I intend to fully utilize this option because I want people to take advantage of the educational opportunities,” Borenstein said.

Subsequent violations of the rules will result in additional fines and suspensions until, on the fourth violation, the retailer would lose its tobacco license for a year. Cities in the county, including San Luis Obispo, Arroyo Grande and Grover Beach, have similar programs.

Borenstein said businesses make substantial amounts of money off tobacco sales. As a result, she expects the diversion program to be a popular option with retailers.

“As a case in point, a prominent retail chain in the city of San Luis Obispo negotiated a $14,000 fine with the city attorney rather than lose their ability to sell tobacco for 30 days,” Borenstein said.

There are about 55 tobacco retailers in unincorporated areas of the county. From June 2012 to August 2013, 267 compliance checks were conducted, with 29 stores selling tobacco to minors.

The new rules are expected to generate $12,000 to $15,000 per year in revenue from fines.