While rates of youth tobacco sales have seen a slight decline in the county, preventative groups continue to fight to extinguish cigarette and tobacco use.

Although a 4 percent decrease in tobacco sales to minors occurred from 2012 to 2013, the numbers are not yet as low as they should be, a City of Madison statement said.

Ryan Sheahan, coordinator for the Tobacco Free Columbia-Dane County Coalition, said the issue with tobacco consumption does not primarily lie with cigarettes. Cigarette use has declined within the past decade in the city, he said, dropping from 33 percent in 2003 to 13 percent among high school students, and 13 percent to 2.7 percent among middle school students.

Sheahan said the department has employed a combination of smoke-free air policies, higher cigarette taxes, tobacco compliance and community education to yield this all-time low in cigarette use among youth.

Lyle Burmeister, Wisconsin Wins Tobacco Compliance Program manager, said the biggest issue behind youth access is vendors in individual stores not taking the time to look at IDs.

The Compliance Program hires youth between the ages 16 and 17 to go into stores to try to purchase tobacco. If they succeed, citations are given to both the clerk and the store owner.

“We try to get each tobacco store about twice a year. We park in a safe place to protect their safety,” Burmeister said. “Tickets can be up to $500. If they don’t sell, then I go back in and give them a thank you card for their support in fighting youth access to tobacco.”

Burmeister said the program also works to increase the amount of smoke-free housing. Part of the program is working with landlords to make their buildings smoke-free, creating more choices for non-smokers and less for smokers, he said.

The emerging threat lies with other tobacco products, such as chewing tobacco, little cigars, Snus and blunt wraps, Sheahan said. He said Wisconsin has seen sales in other tobacco products double in the past decade.

The main concern with these products is that they are packaged and flavored like candy and do not have to be behind the counter, Burmeister said. Other tobacco products will lead to bigger problems in the future, he said.

“We’re going to see a lot deeper lung cancers, which are harder to treat. We’re seeing a rise in chewing tobacco,” Burmeister said. “This can lead to a rise in stomach, esophagus and mouth cancer. The effects of chewing tobacco appear after as little as a few years.”

Ending tobacco use by youth is critical because of the lasting effects of consumption at such a young age, Sheahan said. Ninety percent of all adult smokers start before they turn 18, and he said if they eliminate the use of tobacco by users younger than 18, they can help eliminate tobacco rates for adults and reduce health care costs associated with smoking.

The Public Health Department of Dane County and Madison plans to tackle other tobacco product and general tobacco use through working with, and educating, youth groups on the harmful effects of tobacco.

Sheahan said his goal is to drive the smoking rate down and to stay on top of other products that are coming out.

“Smoking and tobacco use is the number one cause of preventable death in the United States and Wisconsin,” Sheahan said. “By preventing the initiation of tobacco use by youth, we can save lives and healthcare costs. We should continue to invest in tobacco prevention and control because we know it works.”

[Photo via Flickr user MilitaryHealth]