Legislature, convening Tuesday, is being asked to strengthen laws on sales of cigarettes and vapes to minors, including licensing

“When the General Assembly returns to Frankfort on Jan. 2, one of the many problems it’s been asked to address is youth smoking — particularly vaping, which studies suggest has become more far common for Kentucky high school students than cigarette smoking,” reports John Cheves of the Lexington Herald-Leader. “State regulators, public health experts and others are urging lawmakers to strengthen the laws against the sale of smoking products to minors.”

From November 2021 through August 2023, the state Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control cited stores 883 times for sales to minors during the 21 months between, Cheves reports: “At least 114 retailers were cited two or more times . . . Penalties ranged from warning letters — the most common response — to civil fines of $100 and $1,000 for state offenses, going as high as $6,397 for federal offenses in a handful of cases involving five or more violations within a 36-month period.”

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration can ban sales by “the most serious repeat offenders, but it seldom does,” Cheves reports. “The FDA has issued one such no-sale order in Kentucky since 2015.” It lasted only 24 days.

The Kentucky ABC enforces the FDA regulations. Forty states require tobacco or vape dealers to be licensed, but Kentucky does not, so there are no state licenses for the state to revoke to punish repeat offenders. ABC officials refused Cheves’s request for an interview but gave him a written statement saying that an alcohol retailer with repeated tobacco sales violations could be charged with operating “disorderly premises,” which could lead to suspension or revocation of their alcohol license, but the ABC has never done that.

The ABC, part of Democratic Gov. Andy Beshear’s administration, wants the Republican-controlled legislature to pass a licensing law, but acknowledged the difficulty of regulation in its latest annual report on the topic: “Kentucky’s history and culture is tied to the cultivation and processing of tobacco. The role of tobacco in Kentucky’s economy, coupled with the fact that tobacco was the livelihood of many Kentucky families, has created strong norms of acceptance around tobacco that pose a significant challenge to prevention efforts.”

The number of tobacco farmers in Kentucky has declined to fewer than 3,000, but tobacco remains an significant cash crop and the state has the nation’s second-highest adult smoking rate, behiund only West Virginia. Among Kentucky minors, vaping is twice as popular as smoking, Cheves notes.

Terry Brooks, executive director of Kentucky Youth Advocates, told Cheves, “All the evidence we’re seeing — and this includes anecdotal evidence that I hear from my two grandchildren — leads me to believe that kids don’t have any problems getting their hands on these things. And I think it’s a much more widespread phenomena than most of us realize.”

Cheves notes, “Attempts in the General Assembly to increase the civil fines on retailers caught selling smoking products to minors have gone nowhere.”

While state officials debate the licensing issue, Louisville has had a local law requiring it for two years, “even if it isn’t being fully enforced yet,” Cheves reports. “The licensing law and a related zoning law also give the city tools to prevent new stand-alone smoking retail stores from opening within 600 feet of another such store or 1,000 feet of facilities that serve children, such as schools, parks, public playgrounds, day-care centers, outdoor recreation areas, athletic facilities or community centers.”

Cheves adds, “Health officials said in a recent interview that they’ve just begun working on the enforcement part of the law. Louisville’s health department was assigned its new duties on tobacco retail licensing around the same time the Covid-19 pandemic hit three years ago, with Covid understandably dominating the agenda for many months, said Nick Hart, director of the city’s Division of Environmental Health. Funding provided by the relatively small licensing fee has not provided enough money for the city to hire more staff at the health department, Hart added.”

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