Marathon County leads state in underage tobacco sales

More illegal sales of cigarettes were made to minors in Marathon County during state-sponsored stings than in any other county this year.

According to the state program Wisconsin Wins, which has organized statewide tobacco compliance checks since 2002, 23 illegal sales were made during 99 checks performed in Marathon County from June through October. Marathon edged Milwaukee County, which performed 406 checks, by one sale.

All of the 45 Lincoln County businesses checked this year passed, according to data current through September.

Yavonne Wallin, a clerk at the Kwik Trip at North Sixth Street and East Wausau Avenue in Wausau, scans a pack of cigarettes for a customer. The store passed both its compliance checks.

Yavonne Wallin, a clerk at the Kwik Trip at North Sixth Street and East Wausau Avenue in Wausau, scans a pack of cigarettes for a customer. The store passed both its compliance checks.

Wisconsin Wins staff in Marathon County sent teams of two minors into stores to attempt to buy cigarettes. If the minors were asked for identification, they presented their licenses to the clerks. Any clerk who sold to a minor in Marathon County then was cited by police.

Dave Wille, central Wisconsin coordinator for Wisconsin Wins, said he can’t pinpoint why Marathon County performed so poorly, but observed that most of the illegal sales were made when store clerks checked identification but incorrectly read the minor buyer’s birthday.

“The problem wasn’t (businesses) flouting the law and selling without checking identification,” said Wille, referring to Marathon, Portage and Wood counties. “The problem is, once they ask for identification and the customer provides it, that they’re actually checking it.”

John McCord, owner of the Athens IGA grocery store that was among the businesses to fail the checks, said clerks at his store have failed twice during the program’s eight years.

He doesn’t have a problem with the way the checks are performed, but isn’t sure the infractions warrant such hefty fines. The clerk at his store who failed the check was fined $170 by police, he said.

“I guess it’s not a bad idea, but tobacco is not cocaine,” he said.

About 77 percent of Marathon County businesses checked complied with the law. And all but one that failed during the first round were rechecked and passed during the second round, according to the data.

Only BMW Fuel Mart, 102 N. Third Ave., Wausau, failed both checks, according to data released by the Wisconsin Department of Health Services in response to an open-records request from the Wausau Daily Herald. A manager at the store this week declined to comment.

While the 2010 figures are discouraging, Wille said Wisconsin has seen a dramatic improvement in the number of businesses that sell to minors during the checks. The rate of noncompliant businesses has fallen statewide from 33 percent in 2002 — the year the program was launched — to 9 percent this year.

Dot Kalmon, coordinator for the Central Wisconsin Tobacco Free Coalition that oversees the Wisconsin Wins program for Marathon, Portage and Wood counties, said a dramatic cut in funding to state tobacco programs could adversely affect the battle to prevent youth smoking.

Though more and more businesses are checking identification before selling cigarettes, Kalmon said it’s important for Wisconsin Wins staff members to be out each year checking businesses and then helping to educate those that fail.

This year, Wisconsin had $6.7 million for tobacco-education funding, a 55 percent cut from 2009, Kalmon said.

“Without compliance inspections, people wouldn’t bother training their staff and their clerks behind the counter to inspect driver’s licenses and IDs,” Kalmon said.

Training and performance

John McHugh, a spokesman for Kwik Trip, said the high rate of success at the La Crosse-based company’s stores is rooted in its employees. The store provides video training to new workers on how to properly check a person’s age, but otherwise does not do additional training.

Only one of the eight Kwik Trip stores in the Wausau area failed its check, but that store passed the second time, state data shows.

“Here, the reason we’re successful is you can’t train a bad co-worker,” he said. “Before we bring them in, we make sure we have a good person.”

But at other stores, such as the Athens IGA, owners use other, more financially detrimental tactics to try and keep employees on top of checking a person’s age.

“I just tell them if I get a fine, you’re going to pay it, so you check everybody,” McCord said. “I don’t care if they’re walking in here with walkers, you check them.”


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