Tobacco-selling permits suspended

This map shows the 149 businesses whose tobacco-selling permits were suspended for selling tobacco products to minors more than three times in a two-year period. — Courtesy of Philadelphia Department of Public Health

The city has suspended the tobacco permits of 149 retail shops this year over repeated violations for illegally selling tobacco to minors. 

“Over time, this will have an impact and fewer people taking up smoking, especially in those low-income, minority neighborhoods,” said city health commissioner Thomas Farley.

The city Department of Public Health estimates that Philadelphia will have 6% fewer establishments selling tobacco products in 2020, many of which are concentrated in neighborhoods struggling with poverty, and Black and Brown communities in North, West and Southwest sections of the city.

The businesses allegedly sold tobacco to minors between November 2017 and November 2019. Their permits were suspended under a 2016 health department regulation that slaps stores with permit suspensions after they are caught selling tobacco products to minors more than three times in a 24-month period.

This is the second crop of businesses to lose their permits since the regulation was passed. Four tobacco-selling stores had their permits suspended in 2019.

The worst offender this year was Sunrise Deli, at 2708 W. Allegheny Ave., which was caught selling tobacco products to minors seven times, the health department reported. The establishment is located in the Allegheny West neighborhood where the median household income is approximately $32,000 and African Americans make up 94% of the population, according to American Community Survey data from 2018.

Six businesses had six violations; 12 had five violations; 36 had four violations; and 94 had three violations.

The suspensions could be lengthy for some offenders. A retail establishment can only reapply for a city tobacco-selling permit when its violation average ticks down to three within a two-year period.

For others, the suspensions will result in the complete loss of their permits.

The 2016 health department regulation also prohibits businesses from selling tobacco products within 500 feet of a school, but grandfathered in stores already within that range. Any establishment within 500 feet of a school that has its tobacco-selling permit suspended cannot renew its permit. The health department did not have data on how many of the 149 businesses with suspended permits are located within 500 feet of a school.

Before the regulation was passed, in 2015, Philadelphia had 2,973 businesses selling tobacco products. Approximately 48% of all of those businesses were in low-income ZIP codes, 19% were in high-income ZIP codes and 33% were in mixed-income ZIP codes, according to the health department.

About 17% of all businesses selling tobacco products in 2015 were within 500 feet of a school, and 58% were within 1,000 feet of a school, according to the health department. And roughly 51% of the tobacco sellers located within 500 feet of a school were also in low-income ZIP codes.

The city has no reliable data on the percentage of revenue that tobacco sales account for in those permitted businesses. 

The 2016 regulations are aimed at reducing smoking rates, Farley said.

“It means the marketing of tobacco in low-income neighborhoods is going to be substantially less because those tobacco retailers represent marketing of tobacco,” Farley said. “And it’s low-income folks who are dealing with many other problems who are getting a very heavy dose of that marketing, particularly kids.”

The health department randomly checks compliance with the regulations by sending teenagers into stores to attempt to buy tobacco products. Businesses sell minors tobacco products during these test visits 25% to 30% of the time, Farley said. A violation results in a city fine.

The city requires any business that sells tobacco to reapply for its permit on Jan. 1 of each year. Any business that has three violations on its record when it reapplies for its permit will lose its permit until its average number of violations is reduced.

Today, Philadelphia has approximately 2,600 tobacco-selling stores — significantly more retailers per capita than other comparably sized cities. 

While cigarette use among the city’s youth has declined over the decades, the use of cigars has risen, particularly among African Americans, according to a 2017 report from the health department.

Cigar use among the city’s youth increased more than 75% between 2011 and 2015, according to the report. African-American youths also are more likely to smoke cigars than their peers, and cigar use for Black youths more than doubled between 2011 to 2013, the report found.

Report illegal tobacco sales to the city by calling 1-888-997-6653 or visiting phila.gov.

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