Report: Fewer Stores are Illegally Selling Tobacco But Kids Are Still Smoking

Good news for parents and the public in general: fewer stores are skirting the law to sell tobacco products to minors.

According to a new report from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, illegal sales of tobacco to minors was down to 9.1 percent last year — versus a freakishly high 40 percent in 1997.

The huge drop in sales of tobacco products to minors, which hit an all time low in 2011, is largely credited to a store investigation program that conducts unannounced visits and observes whether or not a store will sell tobacco to individuals who aren't 18 years old.

The program, named for deceased U.S. Rep. Mike Synar of Oklahoma, requires each state to conduct the surprise visits. If a state is found to violate the law against selling tobacco to minors, more than 20 percent of the time they face the possibility of losing millions of dollars of federal aid for their alcohol and drug abuse prevention and treatment programs.

In the most recent findings, 33 states and the District of Columbia showed rates of less than 10 percent when it came to illegally selling tobacco to minors. Maine had the lowest violation rate with just 1.8 percent, while Oregon had the highest, at nearly 18 percent. No state had a violation rate of 20 percent or more.

It's progress, but it doesn't mean that cigarettes and other tobacco products aren't reaching children. According to federal data, only 14 percent of minors purchase their own tobacco products.

The U.S. Surgeon General wants more to be done to prevent tobacco from reaching children. According to their findings last year, one in five high school-aged kids smokes. And 80 percent of smokers in the U.S. had picked up the habit before they were old enough to legally purchase tobacco products.