P.E.I. revamping tobacco inspections following drop in compliance among retailers
'The smoking rate of people in P.E.I. who were 15 to 19 years old has increased recently'
The P.E.I. Department of Health is revamping its tobacco retailer inspection program after the last round of checks led to a significant increase in the number of retailers caught selling tobacco or vape products to minors.
Under P.E.I.'s Tobacco and Electronic Smoking Devices Sales and Access Act, sales to anyone under the age of 19 are prohibited.
The province has regularly recruited people below that age to act as part of an annual sting operation to measure and enforce compliance among retailers.
In 2018, the last time compliance checks were conducted, 12 out of 60 retailers that were inspected sold products to minors, resulting in a compliance rate of 80 per cent.
In the five previous years, compliance ranged from 95 to 100 per cent.
"We did have a number of sales" to minors during 2018 compliance checks "and in response to that we're trying to make some changes," said Ryan Neale, manager of environmental health for the province.
"We recognize that the smoking rate of people in P.E.I. who were 15 to 19 years old has increased recently, which is contrary to the Canadian trend. So right now we're putting a focus on that."
Neale said in late 2019 the province hired a dedicated tobacco enforcement officer, something it hasn't had in place since 2013.
That means inspections and compliance checks of retailers won't have to be overseen by environmental health officers also responsible for inspecting everything from restaurants to public pools.
Neale said the return of a dedicated officer to monitor tobacco sales will allow for "relationships with retailers," which have been missing since the position was eliminated after federal funding ran out.
"We find like with any enforcement program if you're not out there developing relationships with operators, educating them, consulting with them and industry, then what we can see happen here is that we do see a lapse" in retailer staff training, education and compliance, Neale said.
He also said the province is "revamping" educational materials for retailers so they better "understand what their responsibilities are in selling tobacco [and] electronic [smoking] devices to minors."
Cancer society concerned about lack of enforcement
A spokesperson for the Canadian Cancer Society said the organization is concerned about the decrease in compliance among Island retailers, and also about what it sees as a lack of enforcement around existing laws.
While the province said it aims to conduct at least one check at each retailer every year, no checks were conducted in 2019 and only about a third were checked in 2018.
Rob Cunningham, senior policy analyst with the society, said for legislation prohibiting sales to minors to be effective, "it needs to be enforced. And if it's not being enforced compliance is going to go down."
If retailers "perceive that they're not going to get caught, then things slip, and there are greater violations and [it's] easier for kids to get access to cigarettes and electronic cigarettes."
Of the 12 retailers in 2018 who were caught selling products to minors, only four ended up facing a fine of $250, those four deemed to not have shown "due diligence," in providing the necessary staff training, according to Neale.
Neale said some of those four retailers also had their licences to sell tobacco suspended for one week.
Cunningham said enforcement is particularly important for P.E.I. with legislation coming into effect this spring to raise the age of access for tobacco and vaping products from 19 to 21.
"It's important things get back on track as soon as possible with effective enforcement," Cunningham said, praising the province for moving to increase the age of access as a result of a private member's bill introduced last fall by PC MLA Cory Deagle.
Cunningham said that change should be part of a broader strategy to address the "dramatic increase" in youth vaping, which grew by 74 per cent in one year according to one Canadian study.
Neale said a working group has been meeting to determine how to prepare retailers for the changes, expected by late March.
"The longer a young person can refrain from smoking or using electronic smoking devices, the better chance they have of never starting," Neale said.
He said he doesn't think retailers want to be selling to minors.
"We hear that from them.…They want to have properly-trained staff so when they're not in the store, their staff are responsible and can take the necessary steps to prevent these sales from happening."
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