On Tuesday, the Atascadero City Council has an opportunity to reduce unnecessary tobacco-related deaths with the adoption of a tobacco retail license. Licensing is a simple and appropriate way for the City Council to save lives in our community. Asking a retailer to pay a small fee to save lives is a responsible policy and is not unreasonable. It is a common sense solution to prevent the youth from embarking on a lifelong addiction and to help solve this public health crisis.
To policy makers in the city of Atascadero with an eye on the city’s pocketbook and a focus on business development, enacting a fee for retailers and adding duties to an already busy Police Department doesn’t seem like it would make good economic sense.
But what if the retailers sold tobacco and you knew that the total adult health-related cost of smoking was estimated to be $18.1 billion in California in 2004? This estimate is half of the total expenditures allocated for health and human services in the 2008 to 2009 California budget.
This equates to an additional $500 in health-related expenditure per California resident, or $3,400 per smoker. Smoking-attributed diseases are an economic burden due not only to health care expenses, but also productivity losses related to disability or early death.
Reducing youth access to tobacco will deter them from embarking on a life of addiction that will continue to increase these costs to our state and the community. Twenty-two percent of 11th-graders in Atascadero smoke, which is approximately 70 kids. That’s a cost of $238,000 in health-related expenditures for 11th-graders in Atascadero alone.
Unfortunately, the proposed plan to deal with the 32 percent illegal sales rate of tobacco to youth in the community that will go before the Atascadero City Council on Tuesday continues to rely on the tobacco industry to police itself, which is a deadly and dangerous mistake.
Instead of a serious program with real funded enforcement, the Police Department has issued a “Tobacco Retail Business Compliance Plan,” which calls for the same actions that have occurred over the past year, save a “firm” letter from the police chief.
Although the Atascadero police cited 137 youth in the past two years for smoking, only 19 citations were issued to tobacco retail employees for illegally selling tobacco. Enacting a tobacco retail-licensing ordinance will work to reduce illegal tobacco sales to youth because it would require retailers to obtain a license to sell tobacco products.
If the retailer sells tobacco to minors, or violates other local and state laws relating to tobacco, the license can be suspended or revoked. The license fee, set by the City Council, is reflective of the cost of enforcing the program and will fund any additional duties. That means there is no cost incurred by the city, unlike the proposed plan that will continue to be paid for by an already cash-strapped city.
Adopting the proposed tobacco retail business compliance plan will continue to cost the city money it can’t afford to waste, and “voluntary compliance” and “self- policing” is like letting the fox guard the henhouse. It’s not good enough for the safety of our children. How many more children must be addicted to tobacco through illegal sales before the city will take the issue seriously?
Two-hundred youth start smoking every day, and of these, two-thirds go on to become addicted smokers. Half of these kids will die a tobacco-related death. Just at Atascadero High School, 21 will begin smoking this year, and it is estimated that seven will die from a tobacco-related death. Whose seven children are you willing to let die?
Laura Slaughter is a registered nurse and chair of the County of San Luis Obispo Tobacco Control Coalition.