AVOIDING TEENS’ TOBACCO STING EARNS BUSINESSES HIGH PRAISE

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METHUEN — Ron Beauregard is known for sending high-school students into local stores to buy cigarettes.

He is always thankful when these kids help him.

“The students are the unsung heroes,” said Beauregard. “They have to have a degree of confidence to walk into a store and ask for tobacco products. They really believe in what they are doing.”

The students, who are between the ages of 15 and 17, work with Beauregard, who is the director of the Tobacco Control Program for Healthy Communities, in “sting” operations searching for establishments that sell tobacco products to minors in 12 local communities.

The students, who must remain anonymous, go into stores and attempt to buy tobacco products, but they don’t lie about their age and don’t carry fake identification.

While stores that sold tobacco to the students usually received citations on the spot, businesses that passed this spot-check weren’t getting recognized. Beauregard changed all that in 2001, when he took over the program and teamed up with Lou-Ann Clement, the director of public health in Methuen.

On May 22, nine establishments out of the 50 checked in Methuen were honored at the Methuen City Council meeting for not selling tobacco to these minors during the past five years.

“This is very good publicity for the store owners,” Clement said. “The store owners deserve it, they deserve the recognition.”

Establishments in Methuen, Dracut, Andover, Middleton, North Andover, North Reading, Reading, Stoneham, Topsfield, Haverhill, Lynnfield and Newburyport are tested four times a year by Beauregard and his young associates. The communities average a 13-percent failure rates with 490 tobacco sales out of 3,689 checks. Methuen is at 10 percent with 88 sales in 851 checks.

Mayor William Manzi has double duty, because he also owns Rostron’s Package Store — one of the nine stores being honored in Methuen.

“It essentially means there is proper training, good training going on in those stores,” Manzi said. “It really is a credit to the store owners that they make it a priority to train their employees correctly.”

Manzi has not overseen day-to-day operations at his store for a while, but is pleased his employees have done the right thing. Other Methuen stores that passed the test 20 times during the last five years include Carolina Convenience Store, Market Basket No. 10 on Haverhill Street, Elizabeth Grocery, Methuen Gulf Service Station, Pleasant Valley Superette, Polanco Market, Arlington Liquors, Inc. and Methuen Exxon.

Clement feels the program is successful because of Beauregard.

“Credit him. He is the one doing the program,” Clement said. “He’s out there in our community educating the retailers. Education is a lot easier than enforcement.”

Clement knows how hard it is to always be 100 percent in compliance.

“It’s like the speed limit. We all go over the 65 mph speed limit.” Clement said. “Sometimes we’re caught. Sometimes we’re not.”

Although Methuen allows each of the establishments to attend a hearing to plead their case if they are caught in violation, the city’s penalties are quite steep.

The first offense results in a $300 fine and three-day suspension of tobacco sales license. The second offense has the same $300 fine, but adds a seven-day suspension of sales, while the third offense adds a 30-day suspension to the $300 fine.

Healthy Communities receives its funding from a portion of the $1.52 tax applied to each pack of cigarettes sold.