Driver licenses in California are color-coded to identify a minor, so it should be pretty easy for a front line employee to identify a 16-year-old trying to make an illegal purchase of cigarettes.
But law enforcement in Yolo County, outside Sacramento, find that frequently the sales associates they cite in enforcement stings have sold to minors who present valid ID's that show they are too young to buy cigarettes.
Lt. Dan Stroski, an investigator with the Yolo County district attorney's office, said that he sympathizes with busy convenience store employees who may feel they have no time to check ID's closely.
"We're really trying to encourage them to start asking for ID's, checking ID's and doing the math," he said.
The rate of illegal cigarette sales has fallen dramatically in the last 10 years. But responsible retailers know that there is room for improvement, beginning with a thorough check of the customer's age.
Doug Anderson, the president of the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing Inc., said that front line employees neglect to check the customer's age for any number of reasons. They may assume, for example, that anyone who presents a valid ID must be old enough to buy cigarettes. Or they may want to avoid a confrontation with a customer or be so focused on speedy service that they don't take the time to look closely at the ID.
"Once you have that ID you have to complete the process of verifying their age," Anderson said.
Many retailers provide their associates with calendars, scanners and other tools to help them do the math needed to calculate whether a customer has reached the legal age for buying cigarettes.
The stakes are high for sales associates and retailers. In some states front line employees can be charged with misdemeanors and face stiff fines. In other states, retailers risks losing their licenses to sell tobacco
New York State will suspend a license to sell cigarettes and lottery tickets if a store gets cited too many times for illegal cigarette sales. Jim Calvin, the president of the New York Association of Convenience Stores, said that his members take a variety of measures to reinforce the training their employees are required to take.
Some stores have employees sign an affidavit at the beginning of every shift saying they will check ID's. Others include a reminder with every paycheck. Other retailers run simulated stings to find bad practices in their store before the health department finds them.
He advises retailers to make sure their employees match the photo on an ID against the customer at the counter, that they check that day's date against the customer's birth date and that they do the math.
Police in Hartsville, S.C., a town of about 8,000, find underage smokers know the stores in town who don't bother with the math.
Hartsville Police Chief Tim Kemp encourages front line employees to use a trick he mastered when he worked as a cashier. Do the math at the beginning of the shift. Let's say it's April 6, 2009. Remember that anyone who presents an ID with a birth date later than April 6, 1991 is too young to buy cigarettes.
"They just need to take the time and look at the ID's and memorize the date they need to be," he said.
Still, the pressures on store sales associates can be enormous.
Linda McKenna, the principal of Convenience Store Coaches Inc. and the training director for We Card, asks retailers she trains to put themselves in a front line employee's shoes.
It's ten at night, there are five people at the register waiting to pay, two pumps running and the phone is ringing. The employee's trying to move the line, keep the customers happy and check ID's.
McKenna understands how easy it is to make a sloppy mistake, or assume that no one would present a valid ID unless they were old enough to buy cigarettes. When she trains retailers, she has them rehearse interactions with underage customers and as importantly she appeals to their sense of dignity.
"Your reputation is on the line in the neighborhood," she'll tell them. "If you end up selling to a minor with a valid ID you're going to be pegged as the stupidest clerk out there."