Sale of cigarettes to minors a continuing problem in Czech Republic

Foto: Štěpánka Budková

Smoking among youth in the Czech Republic continues to be a major problem, with studies showing that the number of those in grades seven to nine who have experience with cigarettes is as high as 70 percent. Of that, some already smoke more than 11 cigarettes daily. Observers also say the age at which children begin first experimenting with tobacco is dropping, as low as the age of ten or eleven. In the Czech Republic it is against the law for anyone to sell tobacco products to minors, but the reality is that all too often sellers are willing to turn a blind eye and fail to ask for ID.

Surveys, including a series of on-going polls by the Prague-based STEM agency, have shown that although most tobacconists are by now well aware of legislation in place, far from everyone respects it.

According to the most recent numbers released by STEM in November, one-tenth of Czech tobacconists admitted to knowingly turning a blind eye when it came to selling to children who looked under the age of 15, while almost one-half were willing to sell to youths who looked under 18. Getting tobacco in the Czech Republic, even if you’re under age, is indeed not complicated, something confirmed by students at one prominent Prague high school we visited this week:

“If somebody wants to smoke and get cigarettes, it’s very easy, it’s no problem. You go and you can get what you want.”

“My guess would be that almost half the students between 16 and 17 smoke and the sellers are definitely not afraid to break the law.”

“When a buyer is around 17 or close to 18 I think it doesn’t really matter whether shop assistants ask for ID or not.”

“It’s really, really easy to get cigarettes but I think the problem is not in the law. The problem has more to do with families. Those who are 16 or 17 should be educated or prepared at home. Not by the state or by a law.”

Curbing the sale of cigarettes to minors is a major priority for many, including the civic association Aliance Zakon 18, created to see that legislation on the sale of tobacco is upheld. The association recently organized a national conference on the sale of tobacco products, attended not only by the STEM agency but also by state, police, as well as tobacco industry representatives. Aliance’s spokesman Jindrich Vanek:

“We organized this conference as a first historic attempt to ‘map’ the situation regarding the continued sale of tobacco to minors and to see the law in practice.”

The reality, Mr Vanek and others admit, leaves much to be desired: too few sellers heed the law, clearly because there is little fear of real sanctions. Although business owners selling to minors can be fined 50,000 crowns, the law is rarely ever enforced by municipalities. Even lighter fines of 1,000 crowns issued by police to shop employees who sell cigarettes to youths aren’t issued very often: enforcing the law for all but the most blatant of offenders is not logistically easy. Other institutions, like the Czech Agriculture and Food Inspection Authority, might be willing to issue fines but don’t have the right to check consumers’ ID. Jan Hartl is the head of the STEM polling agency:

“It is a bit of a strange situation because the sanctions are relatively high, especially for owners of selling facilities, but it’s not very effective because some institutions are qualified to check youngsters, others are qualified to fine the sellers and it doesn’t work in everyday life. The main responsibility lies with municipalities and local police and they don’t feel any special pressure to ask or to enforce controls. This is exactly the direction where future legislation should go: to foster the role of local police and the role of municipalities, towns and villages.”

Until that happens, says Jan Hartl, the situation is unlikely to change:

“It’s not a big risk to those people: our survey shows that new legislation and new activities and initiative and a new method of fining such actions, the number of sellers willing to sell to minors would be lower. Let’s hope that future, more consistent legislation will move closer to meet the expectations of the ‘man on the street’.”

One town which decided not to wait and tried to make a difference now, precluding new legislation, is that of Most, in northern Bohemia. There, Jindrich Vanek of Aliance Zakon 18 says, local police and local organizations began to take a far more proactive approach to the problem of smoking by focusing on those clearly not yet of age:

“In Most, the town hall together with schools and municipal police decided to cooperate together last spring on reducing the number of underage smokers near schools and other public areas. They began checking youths’ ID in such areas and sent letters to families and schools in cases where children were caught smoking. So far, they have judged the project a success, enough to have continued a new cycle in the autumn, spreading to areas such as local parks, railway stations and bus stations, and other areas where minors are known to smoke.”

Restrictive measures are only one part of the equation, stresses Jindrich Vanek: prevention is equally, if not more important. It is of course easier to curb the trend in underage smoking if young teens are discouraged from ever picking up the habit in the first place. Jindrich Vanek once again:

“In general, it’s true that the age at which children begin to experiment has dropped. In recent years, we organized an extensive preventative program called Paragraph 155 which was put together for fifth and sixth graders at elementary schools. The program aimed to show the risks of smoking as well as risks for those who provide minors with cigarettes. In short, it was a program aimed at both sides of the problem: keeping kids from smoking, but also making sure the law was upheld.

“No such program can ever replace the family of course. The parents’ role can not be replaced. There, it is important to stress how much our own behavior has an impact. How children see their parents but also how their teachers behave of course influences their own approach.”