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Undercover teens help catch Arizona retailers selling tobacco to minors

(Pixabay Photo)

PHOENIX — About 100 teens in Arizona are going undercover to help nab businesses that sell tobacco products to minors.

It’s all done through a program by the Arizona Attorney General’s Office called Operation Counter Strike.

A 17-year-old, who asked not to be identified, has been volunteering with the program for nearly two years.

During a typical inspection, she goes inside the stores while special agents wait outside. The agents usually tell the teens what tobacco products to buy.

“If they say no to you, you just go straight back out to the car,” she said, referring to the store clerks. “But if you end up getting a buy, you take it back to the car and give it to the agent. And then they’ll go and talk to them.”

The undercover teens are between 14 and 17 years old.

Erika Mansur, Tobacco Enforcement Unit Attorney at the Arizona Attorney General’s Office, said the goal of the program “is to make sure that retailers are complying with the statewide prohibition on the sale of tobacco products to minors.”

Clerks can be fined up to $300 and businesses up to $1,000 per offense.

Retailers that refuse to sell tobacco products to the undercover minors will be notified of the inspection and congratulated for their vigilance in keeping tobacco away from kids.

So far this year, 840 inspections have been conducted through Operation Counter Strike. In nearly 14% of the cases, the retailers sold tobacco products to minors. That’s up from about 10% a year ago.

“Unfortunately, the e-cigarette products have really caused all these numbers to go up,” Mansur said. “In the last year is when we’ve seen the biggest spike.”

The 17-year-old, who is interested in pursuing a career in law enforcement, said she has bought tobacco products numerous times while undercover.

“I didn’t think I was going to get any, to be honest, when I first started,” she said. “But I’ve gotten 59 so far.”

She said she encourages other teens to get involved, saying it’s a great way to give back and make a difference.

“You even help out the employees realize their mistakes so that they never do it again,” she said.

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