It’s important to recognize the role the tobacco retail environment plays in youth access and use of tobacco products. For many children and teens, their exposure to tobacco products begins at their local convenience store. About half of middle and high school students visit a convenience store at least once a week. Kids who shop at convenience stores regularly are more at risk of starting to smoke than kids who don’t shop at convenience stores. Why? Because the tobacco industry spends billions of dollars each year to advertise its products in local retail establishments, from large chains to small mom and pop shops.

Watch Vista High School students’ Photovoice projects here.   Take time to understand how kids view tobacco marketing when they walk to school and other youth-oriented facilities.  Photovoice is a process in which people like you can capture images of problems happening in their community, this leads to discussions on how to assess these issues and can lead to community change when shared with decision makers.  

According to the most recent Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Cigarette and Smokeless Reports in 2018 the tobacco industry spent $8.4 billion on marketing cigarettes at the point of sale, and $659 million on marketing smokeless tobacco products. Additional funds are paid to retailers to offer their tobacco products at discounted prices. This accounts for more than three quarters of the industry’s total marketing dollars. 

For years, researchers have been investigating the effect tobacco marketing has on not only youth access but youth actually starting to smoke. It has been well-established that exposure to tobacco advertising and promotions in the retail environment is directly related to future youth tobacco use. In fact, youth more frequently exposed to tobacco promotion are more likely to not only try smoking but become a regular smoker.

Tobacco Retailers in Our Community


There is a clear over-saturation of stores that sell tobacco products in our community compared to essential services like grocery stores and common places like Starbucks.

In the shown graph a tobacco retailer is any store (such as a gas station, conveniece store, supermarket, liquor store, smoke/vape shop, discount chain store, drug store, etc) that sells tobacco products (i.e. cigarettes, smokeless tobacco, hookah, e-cigarettes, e-liquid, etc). The number of retailers was retrieved from the California Department of Tax and Fee Administration. A grocery store is a chain or independently owned store with a large selection of quality foods including produce, fish/meats, dairy, pantry items, and other household products. Grocery stores were identified using community surveillance and Internet search engines.

Aren’t There Federal and State Laws that Prohibit the Sale of Tobacco Products to Minors?

Yes, there are federal and state regulations that prohibit the sale of tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to minors. As of December 20, 2019, the federal minimum age of sale for tobacco products was raised from 18 to 21 with no exemption for military personnel. The change was effective immediately. In California, the Stop Tobacco Access to Kids Enforcement (STAKE Act) prohibits the sale of tobacco products (including e-cigarettes) to youth under 21. However, the STAKE program can only perform annual compliance checks in 7% of stores that sell tobacco.

If these regulations are in place, how are youth buying e-cigarettes and other tobacco products?

According to the 2019 Young Adult Tobacco Purchase Survey, about 16% of tobacco retailers in San Diego County sold products to youth under the age of 21. Most of these sales occurred at small markets, convenience stores, cafes, discount stores and liquor stores. Tobacco products that were sold were cigarettes, electronic tobacco products, cigars and little cigars or cigarillos. In fact, little cigars or cigarillos were the most purchased item.

Here in North San Diego County, Vista Community Clinic staff conducted a Young Adult Tobacco Purchase Survey to determine the sales rate of illegal tobacco to young adults in the City of Oceanside. Individuals under age 21 attempted to purchase tobacco products from a random selection of Oceanside businesses in 2017. Of the stores surveyed, 24% sold either traditional cigarettes or an electronic smoking device to a young adult surveyor. Over half of successful purchases were sold with either no ID or after viewing the young adult’s underage ID.


Taking all of this into consideration, how can we reduce youth access to and use of tobacco products?

Local policymakers can adopt policies that limit the amount and location of tobacco retailers and the advertising in the retail establishments.

In Encinitas, for example, retailers are not able to place tobacco advertisements or promotions near items such as candy, snacks and non-alcoholic beverages. In addition, local policymakers can adopt Tobacco Retail License policies. 

Tobacco Retail Licensing Program

A Tobacco Retail License (TRL) requires tobacco retailers to obtain a local license, from the city or county, in order to sell tobacco products in the community. The fees collected from the license are used to administer the program and conduct annual compliance checks of underage sales laws. TRLs create real consequences for retailers that are caught selling tobacco to youth and provide resources to help local enforcement to enforce the law. In a community with a strong TRL, repeat violators could lose their tobacco license.

Over 140 cities and counties in California, including Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Francisco and El Cajon have reduced the availability of tobacco by adopting strong TRL policies. Locally, only 2 North County cities have a TRL, Vista and San Marcos.

Many California cities and counties have added plug-ins like these to strengthen their TRLs:

Minimum Price and Minimum Pack Size

These two protections are most effective when paired together so tobacco companies cannot offer packs of cigars for less than $1.

Flavoring Restrictions

Ending the sale of all flavored tobacco products, including flavored e-cigarettes, menthol cigarettes and flavored cigars, is a critical step to reverse the youth e-cigarette epidemic and create the first tobacco-free generation. In California, San Francisco, Palo Alto, Oakland, Imperial Beach, Solana Beach and many more have all adopted policies ending the sale of all flavored tobacco – including menthol cigarettes.

Location Restrictions

A TRL can can also include restrictions on where tobacco retailers are located, such as keeping them 1000 feet away from schools and other youth-sensitive zones. Restrictions might also include a limit on the total number of tobacco retailers in your community based on population.

For more information, please contact Lisa Archibald, Tobacco Control Manager, at (760) 631-5000 ext.7165


Follow us on Facebook @vcctobacco for resources, information, local, state and national tobacco-related news and upcoming events and trainings

Follow us on Instagram and Youtube @sdstayinformed to stay up-to-date on VCC Tobacco Control events, news and facts