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(LOS ANGELES) – Attorney General Bill Lockyer today sued Safeway, Inc. for selling tobacco products to minors and failing to take adequate steps to prevent such sales at its Safeway, Vons, Pavilions and Pak N' Save stores.
"While we have made progress, youth smoking remains a serious public health problem in California and nationwide," said Lockyer. "Every day in this country, more than 650 kids start a habit that ultimately will cause their death. This case is about protecting the health of our children and ensuring responsible corporate behavior."
Lockyer filed the complaint jointly with Los Angeles City Attorney Rocky Delgadillo. "Anyone who sells tobacco to minors is committing a crime and jeopardizes the health and safety of our children," said Delgadillo. "This lawsuit sends a strong message that retailers must take responsibility for keeping tobacco away from children or face serious consequences."
Filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, the complaint seeks civil penalties which could total in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. More importantly, the complaint asks the court to issue an injunction that effectively would require the Safeway, Inc. stores to take certain actions to curb tobacco-product sales to minors.
Undercover inspections by state health officials showed that, through March 2004, the Safeway, Inc. stores sold tobacco products to minors in 29.8 percent of the cases. In 2003, the violation rate was even higher, at 42.1 percent. Safeway Inc.'s sales-to-minors rate is the highest of four major grocery chains – including Ralphs, Albertsons and Raley's – that underwent the inspections conducted by the state Department of Health Services.
The complaint alleges the defendant stores violated the California Penal Code's prohibition against selling cigarettes to people under 18 years old. The stores also violated state law by failing to check the IDs of tobacco purchasers who reasonably appeared to be underage, and failing to display at each point of purchase signs warning against underage sales, according to the complaint. Finally, the complaint alleges the defendants' Los Angeles stores failed to prominently display tobacco retail permits, as required under a city ordinance.
Despite being notified of the illegal sales, Safeway Inc. has done little to correct the problem, the complaint alleges. "The People have documented that Safeway has sold cigarettes to children in California in violation of state law on numerous occasions," the complaint states. "Notwithstanding the fact that Safeway has been repeatedly notified of said sales to minors, defendant has not taken adequate precautions to ensure that children cannot purchase cigarettes from its stores."
Along with other Attorneys General, Lockyer has worked aggressively to curb tobacco sales to minors. An enforcement effort launched by 30 state Attorneys General in 2000 has produced settlements with major national retailers under which they have voluntarily agreed to take specific actions to reduce such sales.
The agreements cover Wal-Mart and Walgreens stores across the nation, and all gas stations and convenience stores operating under the Exxon, Mobil, BP, ARCO and Amoco brand names in the signing states. Combined, the agreements cover more than 37,000 retail outlets. They provide measures to reduce sales of tobacco products to minors by the nation's top retail chain (Wal-Mart), number one drug store chain (Walgreens) and largest oil company (ExxonMobil).
The voluntary agreements include provisions to strengthen ID checks, prohibit self-service displays and sale of paraphernalia, train employees and conduct compliance checks.
The Attorneys General have long recognized that youth access to tobacco products ranks among the most serious public health problems. Studies show that more than 80 percent of adult smokers began smoking before the age of 18. Research indicates that every day in the United States, more than 2,000 people under the age of 18 begin smoking and that one-third of those persons ultimately will die from a tobacco-related disease. Young people are particularly susceptible to the hazards of tobacco, often showing signs of addiction after smoking only a few cigarettes.
In 1999, Lockyer established a full-time Tobacco Litigation and Enforcement Section to enforce California laws regarding the sale and marketing of tobacco products. The section also enforces the national Master Settlement Agreement (MSA), reached with tobacco companies in November 1998.
Californians who suspect violations of state tobacco laws or the MSA can file complaints by calling 916-565-6486 at any time, or by writing to the Tobacco Litigation and Enforcement Section at P.O. Box 944255, Sacramento, CA 94244-2550. Additional information is available on the Attorney General's web site at http://www.ag.ca.gov/tobacco/ .