Forest Park police will continue participation in a program aimed at reducing youth access to tobacco, after the village council voted unanimously on July 22 to accept a $2,200 grant from the Illinois Department of Human Services.

Police Chief Tom Aftanas said the village has received tobacco enforcement grants annually for at least 13 years. With the grant, police conduct a comprehensive educational and enforcement program that addresses minimum age tobacco laws. The minimum age to purchase tobacco products in Illinois is 21 after a new law took effect July 1.

In addition to providing educational material to businesses, the police will conduct three compliance checks at every retailer between Nov. 30 and May 31. In the compliance check, also called a sting, a person who is between the ages of 16 and 20 enters a Forest Park retailer and attempts to purchase a tobacco product, usually cigarettes, with money provided by the police. 

A plainclothes officer who is in the business at the same time but not in his or her company witnesses the attempted transaction. If the employee sells the tobacco product to the underage purchaser, he or she is given a local ordinance citation. The business owner is not charged. The fine increases with each additional citation.

Aftanas said underage purchasers are instructed to show their actual identification if asked by the employee. 

“They’re told not to lie,” he said.

Aftanas said some employees will make a sale without asking to see identification. A few have sold cigarettes to the underage purchaser even after seeing identification that disqualified them as underage.

“They just want to make the sale,” he said. 

Aftanas said the underage purchasers are recruited from village employees’ families or friends. In addition to the age requirement, individuals cannot have a criminal record to be considered. To avoid recognition by retailers, the underage purchasers are replaced on a regular basis. They are paid employees of the police department.

 “I think it’s a good idea,” Aftanas said. “The compliance checks keep the retailers in check.

“If we don’t do enforcement, it will only get worse. It would be much worse if we did not continue with the stings.”

Mayor Rory Hoskins said he supports the compliance program.

“We don’t want to live in a community where retailers think it’s OK to sell cigarettes to minors,” he said. “It’s part of our job to protect the health and safety of our residents.”

According to Aftanas, 19 businesses in Forest Park sell tobacco products. He said 19 citations were issued last year, an increase from four in 2017. Two businesses, the 7-Eleven at 7749 Roosevelt Road and Jimmy’s Tobacco at 315 Harlem Avenue, each received two citations in 2018. 

Each year, the Illinois Department of Human Services awards $1 million in grants to communities that are willing to implement its Tobacco Enforcement Program as the state’s lead agency in developing strategies to reduce the illegal sale of tobacco products to minors.