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COUNCIL CLAMPS DOWN ON TOBACCO

A customer who enters a Pleasant Grove store to buy cigarettes or a can of chew will have to ask for them from now on.

The City Council unanimously approved an ordinance Tuesday night requiring supermarkets and convenience stores to place tobacco products behind counters. The law, which parallels a state bill the Legislature did not pass this year, says tobacco must be placed or displayed in ways that allow only store clerks access.It is the only such law in the state. Davis County recently turned down a similar proposal, fearing legal challenges.

The Pleasant Grove Youth City Council crafted the ordinance to try to keep cigarettes and chewing tobacco out of the hands of teenagers. According to data students collected, 60 percent of all smokers start by age 14 and 90 percent by age 18

Students figure fewer underage smokers will be able to get cigarettes if they have to ask for them. Taking cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco, chewing tobacco and snuff off store shelves will also prevent shoplifting, students said.

"It is time to put the poison behind the counter," Kristie Bezzant said. "It is time we stand up to the people who peddle death."

Jim Olsen, president of the Utah Food Industry Association, argued against the measure Tuesday, saying stores sell many items than can be abused or misused. Putting tobacco products behind the counter sets a bad precedent, he said. He wondered if alcohol would be next.

"We feel this is a government mandate telling us how to manage our stores," he said.

Olsen said it's unreasonable to force retailers to remodel or alter their stores because of the ordinance. "This creates store-layout nightmares," he said.

Retailers are committed to stopping theft and the sale of tobacco to minors, but they want the flexibility to do it on their own.

"We know this is a problem. We admit it and are trying to correct those problems," Olsen said.

Some stores in Pleasant Grove, including 7-Eleven, have dismantled cigarette displays and placed cigarette packs behind the counter on their own.

Tracy Barker, 7-Eleven manager, said the store is trying to improve its image by taking tobacco products out of the hands of people who would steal them.

"We are very conscious of community opinion. We want to move to meet those desires and demands," he said.

Mayor Lloyd Ash, who didn't have a vote on the ordinance, urged its passage.

"In this community, this is our standard," he said. "If there were anything else as harmful as tobacco, we'd hide it."

When the council drafted the ordinance, at least one council member was under the assumption that the tobacco industry covers stores' losses to theft. Olsen said that isn't true.

"To my knowledge, no store is subsidized for stolen tobacco. There is no factual basis to it," he said.

The original version of the ordinance made second and third violations Class C and Class B misdemeanors, respectively. Both carry fines and jail time. That language made Councilman Bill West uncomfortable.

"I'm not sure I'm ready to send someone to jail yet for displaying tobacco improperly," he said.

Councilman Richard Paulson, who worked with the youth council to prepare the ordinance, removed those possible penalties before the measure passed. Violations were listed as "infractions," with fines left to a judge's discretion.