- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 19, 2000

No one will be able to carry a pack of cigarettes to a store checkout counter in Montgomery County, Md., soon if a majority of public officials there have their way.

Five council members and County Executive Douglas M. Duncan have said they support legislation that would require stores to keep tobacco products behind the counter and out of the hands of young people.

County Council member Blair Ewing, chief sponsor of the bill, said the proposal shouldn't be a problem for the county government or businesses to embrace.

Proponents are backed by the enterprising research of local students who found that, nearly nine times out of 10, they could shoplift tobacco products without getting caught.

Students Oppose Smoking, a student-led group of anti-smoking activists, operated "steal stings" at 50 convenience grocery and gas stores in the county over six months, said their spokesman, Brett Beach Kimball, a senior at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville.

To conduct the test, some of the group's 15 members "scouted out" locations where tobacco products were within easy reach. At those stores, they placed empty cigarette packs on sales racks, then went back in to see if they could take them.

The group will testify at a public hearing in Rockville tonight about how easy it was for a person too young to legally buy tobacco products to pilfer them in some stores.

As more attention has turned to stopping tobacco-related health problems before they start, so have efforts increased to prevent children from using tobacco. Tougher enforcement of laws forbidding tobacco sales to minors has made it harder for underage users to purchase cigarettes, cigars or chewing tobacco.

Although county inspectors wrote about 540 tickets against stores for violating laws aimed at preventing underage tobacco sales last year, many of them were written to repeat offenders, Mr. Duncan said.

And "what we're hearing now is there's more shoplifting," Mr. Duncan said. "We need to find another way."

But some store owners think the legislation isn't needed.

Stores in the Giant Food grocery chain placed cigarette packs and cartons behind the counter about five years ago, spokesman Barry Scher said. If the bill became law, they would also have to move cigars and other tobacco products behind the counter in their Montgomery stores.

"We do not feel the law is necessary because anytime someone wants to buy a tobacco product, store scanners say 'Check ID,' " Mr. Scher said. "Kids today try to buy cigarettes. They're not buying chewing tobacco and cigars."

Many, if not most, gas stations and markets in the area already keep cigarettes behind the counter.

Montgomery County public schools are also beginning a "Quit While You're Ahead" campaign this week featuring a pitch and posters designed by two Montgomery teens who are former smokers.

Not only are Montgomery County officials considering increased regulation of tobacco countywide, they are expected also today to begin debating whether to allow Friendship Heights to extend the ban on tobacco use in public buildings to outdoor public spaces.

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