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ECU study finds Easy access to cigarettes in Pitt County for underage buyers

Ryan Shaffer
PRE News & Ideas

In 2019, Congress raised the legal age to purchase cigarettes from 18 to 21 to improve health outcomes by reducing access to tobacco products among teens and young adults. A recent study found a majority of stores in Pitt County repeatedly sold to underage buyers.

The study by ECU's College of Health and Human Performance randomly selected 49 tobacco retailers in Pitt County and found that three-quarters of them sold to at least one underage buyer. Joseph Lee is a professor of health education and promotion and an author of the study.

Lee and his coauthors sent dozens of college students under the age of 21 to purchase cigarettes undercover. The outcome was two boxes full of successfully purchased products.

"It was a little nerve-wracking," Paulina Weglarczyk, a student who took part in the study, said.

Weglarczyk was one of the dozens of college students who went undercover. Weglarczyk says she didn't get a lot of purchases at first, but as she grew more confident, things changed.

"A lot of times the cashiers would ask if I'm buying for a boyfriend or a brother," she said. "It was also interesting how many times I just got away with it and nobody asked."

Between January and March of 2022, they made more than 200 purchase attempts, visiting each store an average of four times. They visited gas stations, grocery stores, and vape shops. Just two sold every time to an underage buyer, while 50% of stores sold at least half the time. Weglarczyk said it was easier at some stores than others.

"With gas stations and some of the other well-known stores, it was a lot harder. But with vape shops, the cashiers were usually my age or a little bit older like 20s, so those were the stores were the easiest to purchase for me," Weglarczyk said.

Most studies looking at compliance with tobacco sale laws took place in the 1990s when the age to buy was 18. Not many have been conducted since Congress raised the age to 21 in 2019.

The ECU study produced two boxes full of tobacco products purchased by underage buyers. Each carton is labeled with the date of purchase, the price and an anonymized store number.
Ryan Shaffer
PRE News & Ideas
The ECU study produced two boxes full of tobacco products purchased by underage buyers. Each carton is labeled with the date of purchase, the price and an anonymized store number.

Lee said going into the study, he expected similar rates as two studies from the 1990s that found noncompliance rates in Craven and Pamlico counties in the mid-30s.

"I'm sort of sad to say I wasn't surprised by that," Lee said about his study's 34% noncompliance rate, which mirrors the 1990s studies. "There's just not been that much enforcement in North Carolina, partly because of our discrepancy in our age of sale law."

While the federal government has raised the age, North Carolina has not. That means state agencies only enforce the age 18 limit. Lee says that makes it confusing for retailers and could be one reason for low compliance rates.

"So we're not really all on the same page, so it makes it not as effective, and it makes our ability to do education for retailers harder," Lee said.

The study's results stand in contrast with state-reported figures. While ECU's study finds a third of all purchase attempts were successful, the state reports a figure below 20%. Lee says that may be because while both used undercover buyers, they do differ in how they're conducted. For example, the state often uses younger buyers with an official accompanying them. The study also only looked at one county, as opposed to an entire state.

Lee has studied the health outcomes of tobacco policies for years. In our conversation, he emphasized the impact of raising the age and consistent enforcement.

"Young people's brains are still developing and it is really easy to get addicted to nicotine. Once you're addicted, it's really hard to quit, and the consequences are severe in the long term," Lee said. "So, one of our best strategies is just keeping addictive, harmful products out of the hands of young people."

Lee says it's clear that educating retailers and consistent enforcement across federal and state agencies will help reduce access for underage buyers.

Ryan is an Arkansas native and podcast junkie. He was first introduced to public radio during an internship with his hometown NPR station, KUAF. Ryan is a graduate of Tufts University in Somerville, Mass., where he studied political science and led the Tufts Daily, the nation’s smallest independent daily college newspaper. In his spare time, Ryan likes to embroider, attend musicals, and spend time with his fiancée.