Tobacco Sales Require Basic Training

Developing programs to discourage non-compliant sales to minors is good business.

By Steve Sandman

The youth nicotine “epidemic” that Scott Gottlieb, commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), described is being felt across the country, from resident school boards to local regulatory boards determining sales restrictions for flavored vape products.

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With the recent attention being paid to underage use of nicotine, retailers should expect an increase in sting operations from FDA enforcement, along with more severe penalties from manufacturers for those who are found in violation, particularly for multiple offenses.

The industry is changing quickly. Look at Altria Group Inc., which recently closed a $12.8 billion investment in JUUL Labs Inc., the U.S. leader in e-vapor. Still, the mandates requiring retailers to be age-verified compliant will continue to be enforced in full, so retailers will have to be even more diligent than ever in training employees how to sell tobacco and nicotine products responsibly. Fines loom around every corner and stores can even be shut down for multiple violations. You can bet that increased enforcement actions are coming.

Tobacco companies have provided program and training manuals for many years on how to sell tobacco responsibly, and yet we still battle the issue of age verification. One only has to look through the FDA website for retailers that have been cited for violations, and unfortunately, we probably only have to look at our own locations sometimes.

While it’s easy to terminate the employee who gets caught violating the regulation, the most important actions are preventative ones, and there are a number of ways to dramatically increase the effectiveness of selling tobacco and vaping products responsibly.
Zero tolerance means zero chance of failure. If I purchase alcohol in a Target store or a Walmart, I am required to provide my driver’s license, which is then scanned, and enter my birthdate into their system showing I’m legally able to purchase. Those retailers insist I provide my identification and scan it.

The possibility of judgment is entirely eliminated from the employee, and the retailer has decided they are not taking the chance of a mistake being made.

This route poses the highest level of confidence that you will never violate the law and most POS systems these days can be programmed to not allow the sales of designated UPCs to be sold without age verification taking place via scan.

If you’re not ready to go all the way in verifying each and every tobacco purchase, there’s still a better way to enhance your compliance as opposed to relying on a single cashier to make the proper call on whether to card or not to card.

The team approach on compliance encourages the employee’s peer group to monitor behavior and encourage each employee to work towards team success. A program like this works well when a carrot and stick approach is used. For example, if a location has no violations in a particular period, it could mean a bonus pool for all employees to use on a holiday party.

An additional process is not to make the store manager the only leader, but to assign a cashier who is not only a peer, but also right there on the front lines to lead the charge. A reward can be what fits your employee profile and as long as the structure is set up correctly, the results should improve now that fellow employees will be monitoring each other for compliance.

The final option is the most extreme and potentially perceived as a negative, and that is immediate termination for any employee violating the policy you’ve created for selling tobacco responsibly. The policy and the penalty must be stated up front during the hiring process, and a signed verification is a great idea to cement the policy and ensure the acknowledgement of the employee.

These suggestions aren’t only ideas on how to sell tobacco responsibly, but also offer the opportunity to change or enhance how you can address this issue.

Steve Sandman has worked in the tobacco industry for more than 30 years, most recently as president of Republic Tobacco. His extensive experience includes product management.
He can be reached at (812) 569-1388.