Pitkin County cigarette sting largely a bust

Charles Agar
The Aspen Times
Aspen CO, Colorado
Jordan Curet The Aspen Times

PITKIN COUNTY ” Selling cigarettes to minors could cost two Pitkin County retail clerks $200 apiece as part of a recent Colorado Department of Revenue sting.

In recent weeks, state liquor and tobacco enforcement officers employed an underage decoy ” a young man from Grand Junction ” to walk into more than 20 area stores and attempt to buy cigarettes, according to county officials.

State agents, with the cooperation of local law enforcement, monitored the buy attempts and reported just two sales to the decoy: one at the gas station near Aspen Village and the other at Village Market in Snowmass Village.

During the sting, an investigator stood near the counter during the attempted buy, according to county deputies. If the clerk sold cigarettes without asking for a valid ID from the decoy, the state officials hit the clerk with a county court summons, which comes with a possible fine of $200.

Local law enforcement officials who rode along as support spoke in favor of the program.

“Obviously they’re not supposed to be selling cigarettes to people underage,” said Pitkin County Sheriff’s Investigator Ron Ryan, who stressed that clerks are supposed to check identification of anyone buying tobacco products. (The legal age is 18.)

Ryan congratulated area retailers, however, and said the young decoy “struck out” at one store after the next, testing some six businesses in rural Pitkin County (outside of Aspen and Snowmass Village) from Aspen to Redstone.

“We like to see the decoy strike out,” Ryan said.

At one store, a clerk said they couldn’t sell to the young man unless he showed valid ID. The clerk then pointed the boy to a store with looser rules, but the second store also denied him, Ryan said.

An employee at a Redstone store warned a new employee that state officials often send decoys and try to bust the store ” the state investigator then blew his cover to congratulate the employee on teaching the new worker the ropes, Ryan said.

Snowmass Village Police Chief Art Smythe said state officials visited four stores and issued one summons to a new employee at Village Market.

In the city of Aspen, state officials checked 13 retail stores and had perfect compliance (though one store clerk was tipped off about the sting), according to police officers.

“Nobody wants to see our teenagers smoking,” said Bill Linn, assistant chief with the Aspen Police Department, who added that he is frustrated by the many cigarette butts he sees at the skate park in Aspen ” evidence of local teens smoking.

There were no reported underage buys in Basalt.

While it is legal for someone younger than 18 to possess tobacco, it is illegal for teens to buy cigarettes or for adults to give tobacco to a minor, Linn said.

State officials make regular checks in urban areas and pick rural districts at random for annual checks, Linn said.

Liquor and tobacco enforcement officials must prove 80 percent compliance with underage enforcement in order to qualify for federal funds, Linn said.