Jump in Illegal Tobacco Sales to Kids

Wednesday, February 15, 2012 - 7:22am

Four Years of Decline Followed by Disturbing Increase

Every year at this time, Public Health Madison and Dane County (PHMDC) issues a report on the rate of tobacco sales to underage youth. After four years of steady declines in the rate of these illegal sales, the results for 2011 show a dramatic and disturbing increase. This information is gathered by means of compliance checks that are carried out by trained teams of young people between the ages of 16 and 17 under the supervision of PHMDC staff. The check consists of an underage team member attempting to purchase a tobacco product.

This team carried out 300 compliance checks in Madison and Dane County. In 2011, on a county-wide basis, these young people were successful in buying tobacco just under 12 percent of the time. Within the City of Madison, the rate was just under 17 percent and in the rest of the county the rate was almost 8 percent. While the county rate represents a slight increase, the Madison rate is almost double of last year's rate.

Store employees are required to request and check the identification of young people attempting to purchase tobacco products. If the clerk refuses to sell tobacco to one of our youth team members, a PHMDC staff member will come in and provide the clerk with a thank you card. If the young person is successful in making the purchase, the staff member will come in and inform the clerk that a citation will be issued to the clerk and the business owner (license holder) within a week. The citations are issued in accordance with Wisconsin statutes.

According to Lyle Burmeister, PHMDC's Tobacco Control Youth Coordinator, "This is particularly troubling in light of the fact that studies show that 80 percent of all smokers start smoking before age 18." Burmeister added, "We know that tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death in the US so it is critical that we keep up both education and enforcement to make sure that the young people of Wisconsin do not become replacements for the 1,200 people in the US who die every day due to the devastating health effects of tobacco."

The Wisconsin WINS-the Wisconsin tobacco prevention and control program-was created in 2002 to comply with federal mandates designed to reduce the number of tobacco sales to minors. When the program began in 2002, tobacco sales to minors represented 33 percent of total tobacco sales in Wisconsin.

Burmeister concluded "Retail clerks play a front line role in preventing young people from getting access to tobacco products, because when minors have a harder time gaining access to tobacco, they are less likely to become lifetime smokers."

Tobacco companies spend $15 billion per year to market their products nationwide. In Wisconsin alone, they spend $274 million per year. Much of this advertising targets youth, as evidenced by the multitude of new, candy-flavored and candy disguised tobacco products that have entered the market. In 2011, Wisconsin received $840 million from the 1998 tobacco settlement and from tobacco tax revenue. Less than one percent of that amount actually went to tobacco prevention programs.

For more information on tobacco control efforts, check the PHMDC website at

A copy of the complete 2011 is available at:

For information on the Wisconsin WINS program, see


Public Health - Madison & Dane County


  • Jeff Golden(608) 243-0302