To lift a burden from the police, Baltimore County lawmakers authorized the Health Department last year to take over the task of imposing fines on store clerks who sell cigarettes to underage teenagers.
But the county hasn't been doing that job - intentionally - because officials say they are opposed to using minors in sting operations.
The county's approach is drawing criticism from some legal and health advocates who say it is not an effective deterrent.
"You can shake your finger, but if there's no repercussions, what will make a person think twice about it?" said Sherryce Robinson, a member of the Smoke Free Baltimore County Coalition who also works for the American Cancer Society.
Dr. Gregory William Branch, the county's acting health officer, says the county's program to reduce sales of cigarettes to minors is focused on education, and that officials intend to issue civil citations to store owners when they see clerks selling to underage teens.
"There's more than one way to skin a cat," Branch said. "We want to establish a relationship and work with the commercial establishments."
Health advocates say county retailers too often are selling tobacco to minors.
During random state inspections last year, clerks or owners were willing to sell cigarettes to youth under 18 at half the 76 county stores randomly checked, according to the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. This was the lowest rate of compliance of any jurisdiction in the state.
The County Council passed the legislation in November that authorized the county Health Department to impose civil penalties ranging from $50 to $500 on clerks and owners who sell tobacco to minors. Previously, the sale of tobacco to minors was a criminal violation, which fell to county police to enforce.
But County Executive James T. Smith Jr. is opposed to the principal of county agencies recruiting minors to help catch store clerks willing to sell the tobacco products to teenagers, county officials say.
"Clearly the county does not want tobacco products sold to minors," said Branch, adding that the county last month hired an inspector who has been focusing initially on making sure stores are keeping tobacco products off shelves where customers can pick them up without a clerk's assistance.
By keeping cigarettes behind the counter or in a locked cabinet, store clerks are able to ask for identification from customers before making the product available, Branch said.
The new inspector will likely begin doling out civil citations this fall, after oral and written warnings are given, he said.
Without involving minors in the inspections, the ability to catch stores selling to those under 18 is hindered, said Michael Strande, head of the Legal Resource Center for Tobacco Regulation, Litigation and Advocacy at the University of Maryland School of Law.
"To have an agent stand outside a store and hope a child enters and leaves with cigarettes seems like a waste of time and resources and an ineffective program to begin with," Strande said.
He says he knows of no other jurisdiction where officials share Baltimore County's position on involving minors in inspections. In some areas, teenagers seek to help with the undercover inspections as a community service.
In doing its random inspections, the state does not allow the teenagers to actually purchase the cigarettes, in part because the agency is not authorized to issue penalties.
Officials send letters to store owners after the inspections, decreasing the likelihood of any confrontations between the store owners or clerks and the teenage inspectors.
State officials say they also take precautions, including having an adult with the teenagers during the checks and never allowing the minors to try to buy tobacco in bars.
Some council members and other elected officials say they want to assess the effectiveness of the county's approach to reducing tobacco sales to minors before they ask county officials to revise the program.
Del. Dan K. Morhaim, a Baltimore County Democrat, said he will be monitoring results carefully. "We'll want to see if it works and how it compares to other jurisdictions," Morhaim said. "The county ought to use every tool available to reduce the use of underage tobacco use and underage drinking."
Tobacco sales to minors
The Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene did 575 random inspections of retailers last year to determine compliance with the state law banning sale of tobacco products to those under age 18. The percentage of retailers found in compliance:
Anne Arundel Co.:...78.6
Prince George's Co.:...89.2
St. Mary's County:...77.8
Source: Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene