Illegal Tobacco Sales to Youth: A View from Rational Choice Theory
O'Grady, William, Asbridge, Mark, Abernathy, Tom, Canadian Journal of Criminology
Canadian Journal 1 to 2 Revenue canadienne de criminologie January/janvier 2000
On November 30th, 1994, the government of Ontario implemented the Ontario Tobacco Control Act (OTCA). The OTCA was legislated to address the issues of smoking in public places, related signage, and tobacco sales. The Act raised the legal age for selling tobacco from 18 to 19 years of age. The rationale for legislating a minimum age to purchase tobacco is based on research indicating that the onset of long term tobacco addiction occurs primarily during adolescence (Forster, Komro, and Wolfson 1996; Keay, Woodruff, Wildey, and Keeney 1993; Feighery, Altman, and Shaffer 1991; Altman, Rasenick-Douss, Foster, and Tye 1991). As few people begin smoking after the age of 20, tobacco prevention methods are designed to delay the initiation of tobacco consumption and reduce access to tobacco products for youth.
For merchants who do sell tobacco products illegally to underage youth, the OTCA set a graduated penalty structure. Fines range from a maximum fine of $2,000 for individuals who have committed a first offence, to a maximum of $25,000 for corporations convicted of three or more past offences. Such punishments for selling to underage minors in Ontario are among the most severe in North America.
Despite this new law and fine structure, tobacco products remain relatively easy for youth to access in Ontario, as many retailers remain willing to sell to minors. Research undertaken in Ontario in 1995 indicated that 27% of merchants were willing to sell cigarettes to minors (Abernathy 1996). At a national level, the Canadian Cancer Society (1995), for instance, measured the willingness of 499 retailers throughout Canada to sell cigarettes to minors. Overall, 60% of retailers tested were willing to. sell. Similarly, findings from the United States note that minors are able to purchase cigarettes at a success rate ranging from 46 to 76% (Altman, Foster, Rasenick-Douss, and Tye 1989; Altman, Rasenick-Douss, Foster, and Tye 1991; Cohen, Stanley, Martin, and Goldstein 1995; DiFranza, Norwood, Garner, and Tye 1987; Forster, Hourigan, and McGovern 1992; Jason, Ji, Anes, and Birkhead 1991; Roeseler, Caopra, and Quinn 1994; Wakefield, Carrangis, Wilson, and Reynolds 1992).
While it is well known that youth access to tobacco remains a problem, what is less clear is why so many merchants break the law and illegally sell tobacco products to minors. Data collected from 439 merchant compliance checks (events where underage youth attempt to purchase tobacco products) in Ontario are used to address this question.
Illegal tobacco sales to youth
The illegal sales of tobacco products to minors involves the interaction of two main players: the young person who wishes to purchase cigarettes and the merchant who may or may not be willing to sell. Why youth chose to smoke tobacco has been the subject of much psychological, physiological and sociological research (Adlaf, Smart, Walsh, and Ivis 1994; Akers 1996; Gottfredson and Hirschi 1990; Wahlgren, Hovell, Slymen, Conway, Hofstetter, and Jones 1997). It is the goal of this paper to depart from such an analysis and focus on the factors that influence the decisions of merchants who are confronted by youth who wish to purchase tobacco. Simply put, why do some merchants comply, while others break the law?
To a large extent, the existing literature on the topic has been produced by epidemiologists. This research has identified factors associated with illegal sales of cigarettes to minors, such as operation type, sex of youth, and enforcement patterns (Biglan, Henderson, Humphrey, Yasui, Whisman, Black, and James 1995: Cohen et al. 1995; DiFranza et al. 1987; Erickson, Woodruff, Wildey, and Keeney 1993; Forster et al. 1992; Rigotti, Stoto, Bierer, Rosen, and Schelling 1993). Most of these results, however, have been based on bi-variate analyses carried out in the United States, and have not considered a systematic socio-legal conceptual framework. …