Minnesota retailers are performing better than ever in following the law against selling tobacco to minors, a new report shows.
The Minnesota Department of Human Services conducts inspections of retailers each year as part of a federal program. For a 12-month period that ended Sept. 30, the survey showed a rate of 97.6 percent compliance.
The rate is the highest it has been since the state began conducting the survey in 1996, when the rate was near 70 percent, and has steadily improved.
"I think that working with our partners, we've really seen what a difference it makes when you make a concerted effort to try to prohibit tobacco from getting to minors," said Maureen O'Connell, assistant commissioner for the department's Chemical and Mental Health Services.
Between 250 and 300 retailers are inspected in the survey, which is separate from law enforcement compliance checks that are mandatory for every tobacco retailer each year.
Nick Puente, a supervisor for prevention and recovery services at the Department of Human Services, said his office keeps busy reminding law enforcement agencies that by law they must perform the checks.
"Sometimes they forget, they get too busy chasing bad crooks and they always say, 'We're too busy chasing crooks.' And we say, 'Yeah, but there's a law,' " he said. "We're helping the law enforcement agencies keep the retailers on their toes, but also working with the retailers and saying, 'Hey you guys, don't forget.' "
Law enforcement agencies issued nearly 600 citations to store owners and clerks in the past year. Nearly 2,400 teens were given citations, fines and warnings for underage tobacco possession.
Minnesota must have at least an 80 percent tobacco compliance rate to continue receiving a $25 million federal block grant that pays for prevention and treatment efforts.