CBS 58 Investigates: Wisconsin limited undercover e-cigarette inspections
WAUKESHA, Wis. (CBS 58) – While state and federal surveys reported e-cigarette use surging among minors, a CBS 58 Investigation found Wisconsin health officials limited the ability of undercover inspectors to see if stores would sell the products to minors. Inspectors were only allowed to buy e-cigarettes at 20 percent of stores they visited. The state was concerned not all e-cigarettes contained nicotine, and lifted the cap starting with the 2019 cycle of inspections.
The 2019 National Youth Tobacco survey painted a grim picture. Over 5 million kids are now using e-cigarettes. That’s grown from 3.6 million the year before. The 2018 Wisconsin Youth Tobacco survey showed a combined 70.1 percent of youth bought e-cigarettes from vape shops or convenience stores.
CBS 58 joined an undercover tobacco inspection crew on a recent morning in Waukesha. We agreed to keep the inspectors faces and car hidden to protect their investigation. For hours, our cameras watched the teenage inspectors walk into gas stations, grocery stores, and tobacco shops where they attempted to buy e-cigarettes.
The teens purposely did not carry their I.D. cards. At most locations their inspection lasted 30 seconds, the clerks were not selling. But at a gas station, our cameras saw the teens come out with something in their hands. It turned out to be a mint flavored Juul pod.
Waukesha police said two clerks screwed up on the sale. One clerk, on their first day, rang up the purchase. A second, who was supervising the new clerk, handed the Juul pod to the undercover buyers. Neither clerk asked for I.D. As a result, the gas station failed the inspection and was issued a $313 fine.
Tobacco check organizer Holly Miller said, “It should be common sense that you’re checking IDs every time and if they don’t have it, they don’t get to buy it.”
Miller is a middle school health teacher. She coordinates the undercover checks for her region as part of the Wisconsin Tobacco Prevention Control Program. From 2015-2018 her inspectors, like those across the state, could only try to buy e-cigarettes at one out of every five stores.
Wisconsin Tobacco Control spokesman Spencer Straub said, “We weren’t really sure about every product, they weren’t always clearly labeled about what contained nicotine and what didn’t.”
Straub explained an inspector needed to buy a nicotine product to conduct a valid inspection. But the state’s limit means its data has lacked a clear picture on how many stores are selling e-cigarettes to minors, even as surveys showed their use skyrocketing among youth.
Straub said, “One in five high schoolers are currently using e-cigarettes, we have to make that a bigger priority.”
Straub said the state lifted the 20 percent cap for the inspections starting in 2019. Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration had been conducting inspections on its own. It failed nearly 200 stores in 2018 and 2019 for selling e-cigarettes to its undercover inspectors.
Miller said, “It’s not surprising that someone would sell it, I mean, they have to be getting it somewhere.”
FDA reports show the worst offenders in our region were Jasleen Mobile Mart in Burlington and Christiano’s supermarket in Racine. Both stores sold e-cigarettes to undercover buyers at least seven times each. Bother were fined over $11,000.
The owners declined an on-camera interview. But Christiano’s owner told us he fired the clerk who wasn’t checking IDs. Jasleen’s owner said he installed I.D. scanners.
Miller said, “This generation knows the risks of smoking, they wouldn’t consider smoking.”
Miller’s inspectors asked for e-cigarettes at all 58 stores they checked with our camera crew in tow. But she worries kids are already addicted to these products.
Miller said, "Vaping for them is on a total, totally different playing field.”
The federal government is trying to curb e-cigarette use among kids. It raised the smoking age to 21 around Christmas. It also banned most flavors if they’re in ready-to-use cartridges. The next surveys showing whether those measures have had an impact will be released in late 2020.