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Feb 25, 2013 8:49 PM by David Ortiviz

Retailers in Pueblo caught selling tobacco to minors

An underage teenager tries to buy a pack of smokes. No I.D.? That may not be a problem. A 5 Uncovers hidden camera investigation discovered some clerks in Pueblo are selling tobacco to minors, despite warnings and fines by the Feds.

One survey in Pueblo shows 75% of minors who try to buy tobacco are successful. "Three out of four teens, young people less than 18, can buy tobacco. Walk into a store and buy it," said Dr. Chris Nevin-Woods, Public Health Director at the Pueblo City-County Health Department.

In Colorado it's illegal for anyone under the age of 18 to buy tobacco products.

So what happens when hidden cameras are rolling? And and unsuspecting clerks are put to the test. "As long as they're doing their job, following their job they will have no issues," said Sgt. Jeremy Bacor with the Pueblo County Sheriff's Office.

Before we get to the results, it's important to understand the heart of the problem. Kids are becoming addicted to tobacco.

"I started smoking when I was 12 with my friends," said Maria Puttre, an adult who recently quit smoking after numerous attempts to kick the habit. At one point Puttre says she smoked two packs a day. "I haven't had any health issue yet, but I'm sure I will," said Puttre. "I smoked for about 27 years," she added.

Puttre's story is far too familiar in Pueblo. Statistics from the Pueblo Health Department show 26% of teens smoke cigars, 19% use cigarettes and 14% chew. "We're higher than Colorado overall," said Nevin-Woods. In fact in some cases those figures are double.

"The goal is to keep young people from being able to purchase tobacco," said Nevin-Woods.


Local Enforcement

The Pueblo County Sheriff's Office recently conducted an undercover smoke sting. They had minors attempt to buy cigarettes and chew at eleven stores throughout Pueblo County, with News 5 watching.

In almost every case, the clerks did the right thing.

Catman Do's at West McCulloch Blvd. and Carrizo Springs Dr. in Pueblo West.
Clerk: "Do you have your ID on you?
Boy: "I left it at the house, but I come here frequently."
Clerk shakes head.
Boy: "No?"
Clerk: "Sorry."

Kwik Stop at McCulloch Blvd. and Spaulding Ave.
Clerk: "Do you have your I.D. on you?"
Boy: "Naw, but my dad's in the car over there."
Clerk: "Well still need your I.D."

Acorn at Highway 96 and 32 Ln.
Clerk: "Do you have your I.D. on you?"
Boy: "No I don't I forgot it. My dad's right there under the gas thing."
Clerk: "He said he doesn't have his I.D. on him Mary?
Second Clerk: "Then don't sell."
Clerk: "Can't help you bud."

Loaf N Jug at Highway 50 and 36th Ln.
Clerk: "Do you have your I.D.?"
Girl: "Actually I don't I left it back at the house."
Clerk: "Then I can't sell it to you."
Girl: "But I normally buy here all the time."
Clerk: "I've never seen you in here before."
Girl: "Okay, thank you."
Clerk: "Sorry."

However, there was a different outcome at our next stop.

Safeway Gas Station at Purcell Blvd. and Industrial Dr. in Pueblo West.
Girl: "Do you have any Marlboro Lights?"
Clerk: "Do you have an I.D."
Girl: "No I don't but my Dad's right there."
Clerk: "Tell him you have to have an I.D. or I can't sell them."

But then, just a few seconds later, the clerk sells to her anyway.

Girl: "$8?"
Clerk: "$6.98"
Girl: "Thank you."

The girl never showed an I.D., but returned with cigarettes in hand.

Sheriff deputies moved in. "I'm a sergeant with the sheriff's office and you just sold cigarettes to a person under the age of 18," Sgt. Bacor told the clerk.

So why did clerk sell to the minor, even after she asked for an I.D.?

Reporter: "Check for I.D.'s?
Clerk: "Yes I do... I let my guard down. I shouldn't have sold anything to her. I knew it when I did it."

The clerk now faces a $200 fine and the wrath of her employer.


Federal Enforcement

So how often does is this happening?

The Food and Drug Administration conducts its own undercover stings in Pueblo. Federal inspectors have checked hundreds of stores, in every neighborhood. The results: about 14% of businesses sold tobacco to minors.

Pueblo retailers cited by the FDA in 2013:
Konvenience Korner 300 W. Northern Ave. Warning Letter.
Under the Bridge 1202 Socorro Pl. Warning Letter.

Pueblo retailers cited by the FDA in 2012:
DJ's Pit Stop/Sinclair 2290 E. Highway 50. Warning Letter.
Pixie Inn 440 S. Santa Fe Ave. Warning Letter.
Spanky's Liquor World 1415 W. Highway 50 Warning Letter.
Capritta's Oasis 1501 E. Evans Ave. Warning Letter.
Minnequa Mart 2535 Lake Ave. Warning Letter.
Green Light Tavern 227 N. Santa Fe Ave. Warning Letter.
Fairway Inn 521 S. Pueblo Blvd. Warning Letter.
White Horse Inn 628 E. 4th St. $5,000 fine.
Indian Springs Liquor Mart 24920 E. Highway 50. $5,000 fine.

Pueblo retailers cited by the FDA in 2011:
Minnequa Mart 2535 Lake Ave. Warning Letter.
Nacho's Restaurant at Elmwood 3406 Thatcher Ave. Warning Letter.
Plan B Sports Bar and Grill 1400 Santa Fe Dr. Ste. A Warning Letter.
Circle Tavern 405 E. Northern Ave. Warning Letter.
Gils Westside Tavern 2202 W. 16th St. Warning Letter.
White Horse Inn 628 E. 4th St. Warning Letter.
Indian Springs Liquor Mart 24920 E. Highway 50. Warning Letter.
Spanky's Liquor World 1415 W. Highway 50. Warning Letter.
The Hangar 100 W. 23rd St. Warning Letter.


New law

Starting March 1, all retailers in Pueblo who sell non-cigarette tobacco products must be licensed. Health leaders say this increases the stakes for violators. "If retailers know their license is on the line if they do it, I think they'll be a lot more careful," said Nevin-Woods.

If they don't comply with the law, sheriff deputies will be watching. "Obviously the message will be there after today. Hey the sheriff's office is doing these (stings)," said Sgt. Bacor.

All of this is aimed at preventing more people like Maria Puttre from becoming addicted way too soon. "I'm the type of person that doesn't become addicted to anything," said Puttre. "And cigarettes, they're the worst," she added.

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