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Steve Moore

Smoking out the nanny state

By Steve Moore
August 30, 2010

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IT WAS my intention to take the whole thing seriously and pay attention and sit up straight. “The whole thing’’ was a state-mandated training session for tobacco retail clerks. It didn’t work out quite that way.

If you asked me 100 times what I am doing these days, you would get close to 100 answers and none would be “tobacco retail clerk.’’ But that’s not the view of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. In fact, I work a couple days a week in a wine and cheese shop, which has a number of advantages, not the least of which is buying Hendrick’s gin at a good price.

Among the items offered for sale are cigarettes and cigars. That makes me a tobacco retail clerk. And that being so, I was recently informed that my training class was to be on such and such a day. Class? To sell cigarettes?

Aside from the bewildering variety of smokes (“I’d like a pack of Pulmo 100 Lites in the fliptop box and carrying case. No, no, the green pack, stupid’’), the question for the tobacco retail clerk quickly becomes, why is anyone still smoking who does not roll his own? They are about $8 a pack here and that looks good to a Canadian, where they cost more than Gibson Canadian rye. You can buy a small car that will save the earth for only slightly more than you spend on cigarettes per annum.

On the day in question and at the appointed hour, I showed up at a local health department and identified myself. The girl — and I do mean girl, since she looked about 14 — asked for a picture ID, I suppose to make sure some unworthy was not trying to crash the hilarity and good times that were about to unfold.

Not much is certain in uncertain times, but this much is: if you are at the receiving end of a government presentation, you are going to be uncomfortable. And so it was. We were offered steel seats in what had apparently been the space where snowplows are parked when cold weather comes to town. The ID girl and two other community organizers stared at us as we waited for the H-hour and we stared back.

On a table was an array of cigarettes and other tobacco products, in case, I guess, someone of us had never seen any. Finally they began. It turns out that underage smokers were on a campaign to obtain smokes and that, as poor a choice as that might be, someone at the state level had identified the problem as major. We already knew that anyone under 18 couldn’t buy tobacco and we carded youthful inquirers as a rule.

But the presenters went into what forms of identification were acceptable. Clever kids here and there spent considerable effort creating false IDs and we were shown how to catch them at their tricks.

“You should card anyone who looks younger than 27,’’ the girl said firmly. The idea being, I guess, that it should certainly catch under-18s.

“Excuse me,’’ I said, instantly sorry I had opened my mouth, “but you will have to explain how I know someone looks 27.’’

Silence.

“We’ll have a demonstration of that in a moment,’’ she said, icily.

When that moment came, she showed photos of young people who could have been any age.

“How old are they?’’ she asked, making a point.

“I have no idea,’’ I said. In fact, I do not know how old anyone looks, from my wife to my in-laws. I don’t card them, but I do card kids trying to buy tobacco. So why were we here? I asked a question in that vein only to be met again with coolness. I had the feeling they wanted this over as much as I did.

After they finished running through exotic tobacco products that our store does not sell, I asked how much they got from the state to keep these wolves at bay. Nothing for the classes, they said, but $53,000 to run compliance stings. That was for 12 towns in our hinterland county. Statewide, who knows?

We had an exam to make sure we were not snoozing and then were dismissed, certified retail tobacco clerks. Card everybody, was the message. They could have done it in a voice mail.

Steve Moore sells wine, cheese, and cigarettes to persons of legal age.

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