Three New Haven establishments failed surprise tobacco inspections last week, according to a Wednesday New Haven Police Department press release.
Under the direction of investigators from the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services’ Tobacco Prevention and Enforcement Program, the New Haven Police Department conducted inspections of 16 establishments that sell tobacco products to ensure their compliance with state law. Clerks at the stores — two Mobil gas stations on Whalley Avenue and Dux Market on Chapel Street — were cited for selling tobacco to minors and fined $200 each under the DMHAS.
Staff at the two of the failing shops defended their performance, calling into question the integrity and fairness of the inspections, which only take place “once or several times a year,” according to NHPD spokesman David Hartman. But the proprietors at two other tobacco stores that were not cited agreed the DMHAS inspections were a good indicator of compliance with the law.
“I usually card every time, but that time, I made a mistake for the first time in 10 years,” said Mohammed Munim, the cashier at one of the offending Mobil stations. “That’s the first time in my life I didn’t card — I even train other employees to make sure they check IDs.”
To conduct an inspection, the DMHAS sends an underage person employed by TPEP into establishments to try and purchase tobacco products without identification, Hartman explained.
If a store clerk allows the underage person to buy a tobacco product, the clerk is cited and the cigarette dealer license holder at the establishment is referred to the Department of Revenue Services for further sanctions, Hartman said. Depending on the circumstances of the incident and the violator’s past history of infractions, these sanctions can range from fines to license revocation, he added.
At Dux Market, police cited cashier Babu Khan for the illegal sale of tobacco to minors. But manager Kabd Gass said his employee was “upstanding,” explaining that the infraction occurred after a misunderstanding in which the underage person presented fake identification in order to clear the purchase.
“We don’t sell to anyone without ID,” Gass said. “We have a free, complimentary letter from the government indicating our compliance.”
Hartman rejected Khan’s account, explaining the underage person presented no form of identification during the inspection, and a store clerk simply needs to ask for identification to pass inspection.
In a subsequent interview, Khan maintained his account, adding he thinks the inspection process is not consistent and could unfairly target certain establishments depending on the behavior of the underage person. The quality of fake IDs can also make it difficult for store proprietors to ensure compliance with the law, Khan said, although Hartman said that the use of fake IDs is not policed by these inspections.
It was a different story at the 1474 Whalley Ave. Mobil gas station, where cashier Munim was cited in the recent round of inspections after failing to check for identification for what he said was the first time in his career.
Munim said he was experiencing problems with his cash register monitor the day of the inspection and “didn’t pay much attention” when the female underage person employed by DMHAS arrived at the counter.
Because of the inspections’ irregularity, Munim said he did not think they were fair because they may detect an infraction the “one time it occurs,” rather than the ordinary behavior of store clerks.
Inspections only occur at the request and availability of DMHAS investigators, Hartman explained, adding the NHPD’s role is to support the inspections and ensure law enforcement. The unannounced schedule of inspections is fair, said Joe Lentine, master tobacconist at College Street’s Owl Shop, because establishments should be ensuring compliance 100 percent of the time.
“While the violation is ultimately the responsibility of the administrative level — the owner of the shop — the violation is issued to the clerk, the one breaking the law,” Hartman said. “You can have a very responsible owners, but a lax clerk, or you can have a mismanaged establishment that does happen to have a clerk that cards.”
DMHAS youth inspectors have to be 16 or 17 years of age and receive $8.25 an hour for their work.