Reading down the list of individual violations, a trend becomes clear; Yes, no, no, no, no, no, yes. No, no yes, no, no, no.
A lot of stores are not checking for ID, according to the city’s information. On the list of more than 100 violations for 2022, most of those retailers issued citations had not asked for ID. Most of those were from convenience stores, including those from big chains like 7-Eleven and Circle-K and gas stations operated by companies like Conoco and Shell.
This information echoes what young people reported in a statewide health survey.
That survey from 2021 of Colorado kids found that for every 10 minors who bought tobacco or vapes in a store, only three were turned away because they were too young. The number was virtually identical in the region that includes Denver, according to the Healthy Kids Colorado Survey.
Groups representing Colorado’s convenience stores and vaping industry disputed the survey result that 70 percent of underage students who tried to buy tobacco or vaping products in a store were not refused because of age.
“The collective licensing, policing, regulatory, and enforcement work from local, state, and federal government officials as well as law enforcement agencies,” contradicts that figure, according to Joe Miklosi, a lobbyist for the vaping industry group Rocky Mountain Smoke Free Alliance, and former Democratic state representative.
He called it “unscientific and reliable,” and said it doesn’t align with data from the state’s Department of Revenue and law enforcement agencies, which also conduct compliance checks.
Many teens get tobacco and vaping products from “parents and guardians who do not abide by the law,” Miklosi said. “Another major source of youth vaping access stems from online purchases and older friends.”
The city also said the 70 percent figure is likely too high.
“Based on our estimates from our youth operative program, we believe this number is significantly less,” said Ryann Money, public information officer for Denver’s Department of Public Health & Environment.
According to the 2021 National Youth Tobacco Survey, about 22 percent of youth e-cigarette users report obtaining e-cigarettes from a vape shop or tobacco shop in the past month. About 18 percent report getting them from a gas station or convenience store. Nearly 23 percent of students said they bought them from another person, a friend, a family member, or someone else. (About half did not purchase the products they used in the past 30 days.)
The city tracks retail sales through its tobacco enforcement division
As part of that effort, it hires youth investigators who, as part of the city’s compliance efforts, try to buy tobacco or vape products. They report what they find to the city, which fines violators.
“So I think it varies on location and just kind of when we’re there,” said Adrianne, a metro Denver high schooler who worked in tobacco enforcement. We’re just using her first name to protect her identity.
She said teens looking to buy often know which stores will sell.
“Usually they know a spot and that’s where everyone starts to go to, especially closer to schools or popular hangout places,” explained Adrianne.
Her experience confirms what the city says their numbers show and the statewide survey supports, that the products can be easy to get via retailers.
“Sometimes they’re very good about it and sometimes they’re obviously very not.”
CPR News tagged along on a city tobacco compliance visit to Headquarters Vape and Smoke on Denver’s Capitol Hill.
Owner Joe Dvorzsak said he doesn’t want to risk serving a minor and checks IDs meticulously.
“I know there are shops that aren’t as on top of it as us but when we see something like that, we don’t serve that person, just out of the possibility of it getting into a minor’s hands,” he said.
One challenge he said is what are called social sales, in which a minor will ask or pay an adult to buy for them.
“Usually ends up being someone who needs money,” Dvorzsak said. “These kids go, ‘I’ll give you 20 bucks to get me something.’ And we don’t want to facilitate that transaction.”
Multiple violations by retailers can lead to the city issuing a $5,000 fine and potentially a retailer losing its tobacco license.
Brenden Gentry, the tobacco program supervisor, said some businesses have appealed their fines, noting some have said they make a majority of their money selling tobacco products.
“A few of these have said that ‘If I stop selling tobacco, my store is basically going to be closed down,’” he said. “It is a slew of people that violate whether it’s small mom and pop shops, franchisee stores, big box stores, whatever it may be.”
There is a geographical element to where a lot of products get sold
Gentry noted that a lot of tobacco retailers are located in and around Denver’s communities of color. The city created a map of where these tobacco retailers are.
On the map above, you can really see they’re concentrated in and around those neighborhoods north of Interstate 70 and west of Interstate 25 — what’s called the inverted L in Denver.