SMOKES TO MINORS BURN 3 MASSACHUSETTS CHAINS

BOSTON -- Three Massachusetts supermarket chains have agreed to pay a combined $77,500 in penalties after being charged with selling cigarettes to minors.Two of the chains said they have taken specific steps to electronically monitor such transactions to prevent further violations.The chains -- Stop & Shop, Boston; Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, and Purity Supermarkets, North Billerica --

BOSTON -- Three Massachusetts supermarket chains have agreed to pay a combined $77,500 in penalties after being charged with selling cigarettes to minors.

Two of the chains said they have taken specific steps to electronically monitor such transactions to prevent further violations.

The chains -- Stop & Shop, Boston; Shaw's Supermarkets, East Bridgewater, and Purity Supermarkets, North Billerica -- reached settlements earlier this month with the state attorney general's office here to pay $1,250 for each illegal sale. Stop & Shop will pay $38,750; Shaw's $22,500 and Purity $16,250.

The chains also will pay $7,000 ($3,000 from Stop & Shop; $2,000 each from Shaw's and Purity) toward the attorney general's costs of running the investigation.

The fines should send a message to all retailers in Massachusetts and other states as well, said Bernard Rogan, corporate public relations director for Shaw's.

"I think it's sort of hitting a lot of people on the head at one time, to say, 'Look, if this happens, you're going to be in deep financial exposure,' " he told SN.

"You can see how dangerous it is for a smaller operator. It's dangerous for us, too," he said. "It certainly will make some of the operators, with perhaps less-sophisticated equipment available, think twice before they just indiscriminately sell cigarettes to anybody of a questionable age."

The sales took place during an April investigation by the attorney general's office, during which minors were sent to various retail establishments to attempt to purchase cigarettes.

John LaMontagne, a spokesman for the attorney general's office, said the minors were sold cigarettes in 79% of their visits to supermarkets, as opposed to 64% in other retail establishments.

Officials at all three chains said

measures designed to stop the sale of cigarettes to minors were in place before the fines. However, those efforts have been stepped up in the wake of the fines and new steps are being taken.

"The one most technologically advanced change we are testing is a systems change in our front end," said Mary Jo Anderson, a spokeswoman for Stop & Shop. "There's a systems change in which a cashier would actually be unable to complete a transaction without having checked the customer's ID and OK'd that this person was indeed of age."

Anderson didn't know how soon the testing would be completed and the process rolled out to all the company's stores.

Shaw's, on the other hand, plans to have a similar system in place within days. "I understand it's a matter of feeding in the birth date, then the computer doing the analysis of whether the individual is of age, and then not allowing the sale if there's a problem," said Rogan.

Dennis Crook, senior vice president of human resources and labor relations for Purity, said such a system will not be used immediately in his stores.

"Today, we're not able to do it across the chain. As we convert our systems and that technology is available to us, we'd be doing it," he said. "However, we have policies in place that would give you the equivalent value of that; which basically is that we check for ID with anyone who appears to be underage."

As part of the settlement, Purity has agreed to spend up to $50,000 on messages designed to discourage the use of tobacco products by minors.

"Within our circular, periodically you'll see in a prominent place a statement such as, 'If you're under 18, don't try to buy cigarettes at Purity.' In smaller print it would talk to the fact that we endorse and adhere to Massachusetts state law which prohibits the sale of cigarettes to minors," Crook said.

Other measures being taken by the chains include locking up all tobacco products, checking photo IDs of potential buyers and posting notices in stores regarding the legal age for purchasing tobacco products.