Compliance Checks used as Sting Operations are the method of choice for enforcement of the laws against the sale of tobacco or alcohol to those under aged. Yet, they have been shown to be totally ineffective in their stated goal. That goal is to reduce the use of either tobacco or alcohol by those deemed too young by our society to use such.

However, before we can replace Sting Operations, we must first determine what is wrong with them, so that we don't make the same mistakes again. I can rattle off three defects with the current practice of Sting Operations. These are:

  1. Compliance Checks used as Sting Operations do not recognize that when an illegal sale of alcohol and/or tobacco is made to one who is under aged, there are two people involved. The first is the cashier who may be (to use the words of the U.S. Supreme Court) "unwary innocent." The second is the under aged person who is consciously attempting to violate the law against the purchase of tobacco and/or alcohol in his or her case. If that person did not exist, the law would not be broken.
  2. Compliance Checks used as Sting Operations have no way of identifying cashiers or retail outlets which pander to the under aged due to either a wanton disregard for the law against the sale of alcohol and/or tobacco to the under aged, or criminal negligence when making such sales. Because of the random nature of these Sting Operations, the real criminals behind the cash register, and the real criminal owners could continue to operate while the (again using the U.S. Supreme Court's words) the "unwary innocent" are severely punished for innocent mistakes.
  3. Finally, the wary guilty, with a minimum amount of intelligence and not much more research, can find out how to get around Compliance Checks used as Sting Operations and make the illegal sales intentionally without any need to be concerned about being caught.
This last one may come as a surprise to many. Yet, it is true.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the federal agency delegated with gathering statistics on Compliance Checks for tobacco, reports that Washington States rate of Compliance rose from 80.2% to 94.5% in the period between fiscal year 1997 and 1998. Yet, in spite of that raise, consumption of tobacco by high-school students rose 38% from 1990 to 1998 and nearly doubled with sixth graders. Evidently, these Sting Operations had no affect of the use of tobacco by the under aged. However, more alarming is the fact that the under aged reported that they obtained their tobacco, fifty percent of the time, from retail outlets. That is, these under aged smokers are claiming that they are able to go into a grocery store, convenience store or tobacco shop and purchase the tobacco themselves! How is this possible if compliance has gone up?

Virginia gives us an idea. When Virginia decided to disregard the standard practice of Compliance Checks, and allow the under aged agent to present an ID, it found a non-compliance rate of 38%. This is in spite of a Compliance rate reported to (SAMHSA) of 81.4% or non-compliance of 28.6%. Virginia reports that the under aged agents presented their own identifications, which were marked twice to prove that these agents were not old enough to purchase. The only realistic conclusion us that the cashiers did not check the ID's.

The standard for Compliance Checks states that if a cashier asks for identification, the under aged agent of law enforcement is to cease his or her attempt to purchase and leave. This is becoming common knowledge among not only cashiers, but the under aged users as well. Consequently, if the person attempting to purchase offers a bogus identification, the cashier knows that it is safe to sell because that person is not an agent in a Sting Operation. If the person attempting to purchase offers an excuse, the cashier again knows that it is safe to sell. If the person attempting to purchase offers a legitimate identification which shows him or her to be too young, the cashier still knows that it is safe to sell...and to show you that the minors know this as well, I once had a kid say to me, "I don't have my ID with me, but I'm still asking you to sell to me, so you know this isn't a sting operation because I'm not giving up. Don't be an ass-hole and sell me the damn cigarettes."

The reason why Compliance Checks used as Sting Operations are the method of choice is because they produce results. A team goes out on a Sting Operation, stings a number of stores, and returns with a percentage of citations. Then comes the media report. The officer in charge of the operation tells the press, "Last night we went out and stung 30 stores and found 5 of them to be in non-compliance. This is down from our last sting operation, which proves that we are having an affect. However, we are not done yet. Citations were issued to all 5 cashiers found to be in non-compliance, as well as to their employers. We will keep this up until all the cashiers and all the stores realize that we will not tolerate non-compliance." (The figures were made up for the sake of the illustration, but the format is typical.) However, since these Sting Operations have done nothing to reduce consumption on the part of the under aged, since these Sting Operations do not reduce the incidence of sale of alcohol and/or tobacco to minors, the results are no more meaningful than notches on a pistol grip. Law enforcement can point to these results to demonstrate that they are doing something. But, what they are doing is accomplishing nothing more that disrupting the lives of innocent cashiers and destroying the businesses of retail outlets.