County leaders voted Tuesday to ban cigarette vending machines in unincorporated areas of the county in a move to snuff out smoking among youngsters.
Youth health advocates and some politicians hailed the county Board of Supervisors' unanimous vote on the ordinance that will outlaw the machines except in bars, which already exclude minors.
But others doubted that the law will really help stop youngsters from taking up the cancer-causing habit. The board is set to adopt the ordinance Tuesday.
Nan Waltman, a senior health educator with the county's Public Health Services Tobacco Education Program, called the ordinance "the first salvo" in the war against youth smoking.
"This is an excellent first step in protecting kids from tobacco," Waltman said. "Tobacco vending machines are the favorite source of cigarettes for the youngest would-be smokers. Machines don't ask questions and they don't card."
Motels, restaurants and other businesses in the county's unincorporated areas, including El Rio, Oak View and Piru, could face fines up to $1,000 if they fail to remove the machines after several warnings. The ban takes effect in 60 days.
Supervisor Susan Lacey, an ex-smoker, encouraged the board to draft the ordinance at a July 18 board meeting. The ordinance states that vending-machine sales account for 16% of all illegal cigarette purchases by minors.
Steve Offerman, assistant to Lacey, said his office does not know the exact number of vending machines in the unincorporated areas. But he said prohibiting the cigarette dispensers in all locations except for bars is important for the health of Ventura County's youth.
"Clearly, machines that are not supervised cannot discriminate among their customers," Offerman said. "Surveys of minors determine that [banning cigarette machines] will dry up one potential source for them."
Waltman said federal statistics show that more than 3,000 Americans become hooked on cigarettes every day. Nearly 1,000 of these people eventually die from smoking-related illnesses.
"We know that 90% of smokers start under 20 so we know that most are going to be kids," Waltman said.
In Ventura County, more than 7,000 minors smoke--about 10% of the boys and 15% of the girls, according to state health statistics.
The cities of Camarillo, Ojai and Thousand Oaks have adopted similar laws barring cigarette machines in areas outside of bars. The county ordinance is stricter than a state bill now on Gov. Pete Wilson's desk that would allow tobacco vending machines in bars and specified sections of restaurants.
Although Supervisor John K. Flynn voted in favor of the ordinance, he said after the meeting that he questions the ban's ability to keep cigarettes away from children. Flynn said youngsters will continue to get cigarettes from their parents and friends.
"When you pass an ordinance, you are telling people this will have an effect," Flynn said. "This ordinance will not have any effect at all on young people smoking."
Steven Karlock, the owner of Ventura County Amusement Service Inc., said he owns two or three cigarette vending machines in the county's unincorporated areas. Karlock said he used to own about 80 machines countywide, but said that number has dropped to less than 10 in recent years because of strong, nationwide anti-smoking sentiment.
Although Karlock said he has expanded his business by buying video games, jukeboxes and other machines, he called the ban an invasion of the small-business owner's rights.
"I think that the right to decide what goes where should be left to the individual who owns the location, pays the rent, pays taxes," Karlock said. "It should not be the decision of the bureaucrat who lives in an ivory tower. What happened to individual rights and individual choice?"
Karlock added that politicians should spend more time worrying about children buying drugs such as heroin and cocaine and less time trying to crack down on illegal nicotine sales.
But some smokers said they welcomed the ban.
"I smoke, but it really bugs me when I see a 13-year-old or 14-year-old smoking," said 27-year-old Ventura resident Michelle Forrest, who became a smoker when she was 15. "When a 13-year-old can get their hands on a pack of cigarettes, there is something wrong with this society."