Let Schenectady County enforce restriction on sales of loose cigarettes
I’ll admit it, I am totally out of the loop when it comes to modern communication . . . and for me, texting and “urban slang” both fit into this category.
Thankfully, during the Feb. 24 Schenectady City Council meeting, I was introduced to and educated on the word “loosies.” Having never heard this term before and after doing a little research, I found out that a “loosie” is an individual cigarette that is bought or sold.
Being a non-smoker my entire life, this really wasn’t something that interested me until I learned that Mayor Gary McCarthy was trying to amend the city code to make the selling of loosies a crime.
Coincidentally, selling loosies is illegal in New York state. According to the State Department of Taxation and Finance, cigarettes can only be sold in packages of 20 or more, must be sold in the manufacturer’s packaging and need to have a state tax stamp affixed to the bottom of each package.
The audience the mayor is concerned with are minors buying single cigarettes. According to the Adolescent Tobacco Use Prevention Act of 1992, minors are prohibited from purchasing “cigarettes, loose cigarettes, cigars, bidis, gutka, chewing tobacco, powdered tobacco, nicotine water, herbal cigarettes, shisha, smoking paraphernalia and electronic cigarettes (e-cigarettes).”
As a side note, bidis are thin cigarette from India, gutka is similar to a chewing tobacco, and shisha is the tobacco used in a hookah . . . you’ll have to Google that one yourself.
Being a past business owner in Schenectady, where cigarettes were sold in my market, I am well aware of the licensing, policies, inspections and penalties associated with the sale of tobacco products. Just to apply for a cigarette license requires a $300 fee.
On top of that, New York state has the highest rate of tax per pack in the nation at $4.35. Both the County Health and State Taxation departments conduct the minimum of a yearly inspection at each cigarette retailer.
The Schenectady County Health Department works with enforcement officers who use a variety of tactics upon inspecting a retailer, such as:
• Sending an underage youth into an establishment to purchase a tobacco product.
• Having an individual attempt to buy loose cigarettes from a business.
• Verifying that cigarettes are stored behind the counter or in a locked receptacle.
• Checking that the business has valid tobacco registration and licensing.
• Checking for proper signage.
The penalties range from monetary, to a point system, to revocation and suspension of a tobacco license as well as the suspension of one’s New York State Lottery license.
As a former business owner, this is not a department you want to be in trouble with. They take prisoners and don’t ask questions when you’re caught. It’s a slippery slope if you don’t comply.
Without tobacco products, most corner stores and gas stations would be out of business. According to the Feb. 5 Wall Street Journal, gas stations make up 48 percent and convenience stores 16 percent of all tobacco sales in the U.S. Therefore, the penalties imposed are meant to avoid recidivism and can be the downfall of a business.
If the mayor is correct and there is a pandemic of minors acquiring cigarettes illegally, I have to wonder why the Schenectady County Department of Health hasn’t been alerted to it. Has the city been neglected by the County Health Department? So, I did a little digging.
One local convenience store in Mont Pleasant was subject to a sting operation done a month and a half ago, with an earlier inspection completed four months prior to that. Another store located on Union Street had its last inspection six months ago.
The county is doing the inspections, they are frequently in the city of Schenectady, and the state’s findings seem to support the fact that it is winning the war on tobacco use by minors. The New York program from 2000 to the present has seen a 53.5 percent reduction in high-school smoking.
Still perplexed, I decided to give a call to the Schenectady County Department of Health. After speaking with four very helpful representatives, I was surprised that they were unaware of the mayor’s remarks from the Council meeting. One even promised to send an email to Mayor McCarthy alerting him that they are always willing to come out and investigate when a complaint is reported.
It raises the question, why would the city of Schenectady want to take over the enforcement of the law on illegal tobacco use when the county is fully capable, willing and successful at doing so? One simple phone call to the County Department of Health at 386-2818 to report wrongdoings would set the wheels in motion to either fine or revoke the licenses of such stores.
The city does not have the expertise in this area, the County Health Department does. The last thing the taxpayers of the city and county need is another waste of money and manpower on an idea that is simply a duplication of effort.
Before the city places an undue burden on the police force, it would be beneficial for the mayor and the City Council to work in conjunction with the County Department of Health to get this problem under control.
My father always told me to pick my battles wisely. In this instance, the battle on illegal tobacco use can be waged and won by the Schenectady County Department of Health. All the city needs to do is work well with others.
Joyce C. Wachala lives in Ballston Spa and owns property in Schenectady. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.