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Baltimore County officials say enforcement, education have greatly reduced tobacco sales to minors

A few years ago, more than half of Baltimore County retailers were failing compliance checks in sting operations that tested whether stores sold tobacco to minors.

Today, roughly 99 percent of stores are passing the checks, according to County Executive Kevin Kamenetz and county Department of Health and Human Services Director Dr. Gregory Wm. Branch.

"We have made an amazing turnaround in preventing teenagers from being able to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products right here in Baltimore County," Kamenetz said at a news conference Tuesday inside a Parkville area 7-Eleven store.

The health department conducts sting operations by sending students under age 18 into shops to try to buy cigarettes and other tobacco products. The students are under the supervision of health enforcement officers.

In 2015, 54 percent of tobacco retailers who were tested failed to comply with laws prohibiting the sale of tobacco to those under age 18 — "something that disturbed me a lot," Kamenetz said.

Now, the noncompliance rate is a little more 1 percent.

The county previously had the highest non-compliance rate in the state, officials said.

Branch credited the reduction to"public health being on the job."

He said his department stepped up enforcement and worked to educate retailers. Last year, the department conducted more than 4,000 sting operations on more than 800 tobacco retailers, he said.

In addition, the county passed legislation in 2015 to increase penalties for those who sell tobacco to underage kids, Branch said.

State surveys have shown that nearly all Maryland smokers started using tobacco when they were under 18, he said.

Kamenetz and Branch recognized Nick and Jigisha Patel, owners of the 7-Eleven in Parkville, for their efforts to stop sales minors. Jigisha Patel said the issue is important to them as parents.

"We have three kids," she said.

Tobacco sales to minors are falling statewide, according to figures provided by Maryland health officials. In 2015, the state non-compliance rate was 32 percent. That rate has fallen to about 11 percent.

Sun reporter Meredith Cohn contributed to this article.

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