WASHINGTON - It's official today: If you're under age 27 and want to buy cigarettes or chewing tobacco, you have to produce a photo ID proving you're old enough - at least 18.
The question is how the government will enforce the first wave of its crackdown on youth smoking.
Tobacco-friendly North Carolina and Virginia flip-flopped Thursday over enforcement. In addition, the Food and Drug Administration still hasn't hired state inspectors to audit cigarette retailers' compliance. That means, at least until summer, anti-tobacco volunteers will have to blow the whistle on offenders.
"It's going to take an army of citizens," said John Banzhaf of Action on Smoking and Health, which is organizing thousands of people to report suspected lawbreakers to an FDA hot line. He plans to send teens early today to test the new law in Washington and suburban Virginia stores.
State laws already outlaw selling tobacco to anyone under age 18. Yet government figures show minors buy $1.6 billion in tobacco annually, and 75 percent of teen smokers say they've never been carded - reports verified in states like Indiana, which last summer discovered 41 percent of stores sold tobacco to teens.
Lynne Wolfe, co-manager of Kroger on Columbia Road, said the store began requiring identification earlier this year in anticipation of the law.
"Most of our customers have been very cordial about it," she said. "People are used to being carded anyway for alcohol ... Where you might have a problem is kids having their buddies who are over 18 coming in to buy for them. That's illegal, but we have little control over that."
Augusta resident Patsy McGregor, however, believes lawmakers should worry about more important issues.
"The government is worried about kids smoking and drinking, but yet they can get guns and drugs," said Ms. McGregor, who is a nonsmoker. "Why should you have to get carded if you're over 18? If someone comes in and they look real young I can see carding them, but not older people."
The FDA, in the first of sweeping new tobacco regulations, ordered retailers to card all customers younger than 27 to prevent mature-looking minors from buying tobacco. Store owners caught selling to teens face federal fines of $250 per violation.
The FDA is contracting with states to send undercover teen-agers to catch lawbreakers. But the agency still hasn't picked the 10 states to share the first $4 million in enforcement funds, meaning federal stings won't happen for at least a month, and can't hire additional states unless Congress forks over more money.
FDA inspectors could target states that don't do their own enforcement.
"If we find that a retailer is not complying, we can take appropriate steps ... wherever he or she lives," warned FDA spokesman Jim O'Hara.
Virginia and North Carolina, which joined a pending tobacco industry lawsuit challenging all the FDA's tobacco regulations, are possible targets.
North Carolina Attorney General Mike Easley said in a statement early Thursday that pending the judge's ruling, "Our department does not have authority to enforce the contested tobacco rules." In a later interview, however, Mr. Easley acknowledged: "It is the law. ... North Carolina law enforcement officers respect the law, and they will do what they can to enforce it."
Virginia's prosecutor's office initially said it would ignore the law. But Gov. George Allen quickly repudiated that position, and Attorney General James Gilmore later told retailers to card customers "until the courts have ruled."
While cigarette makers say today's change doesn't affect them, retailers predicted longer lines as they card customers who buy tobacco 26 million times a day.
The National Association of Convenience Stores advised 1 million store employees to tell irate customers they're just doing a job the feds foisted on them.
"I don't know if I can do this," said an Alexandria, Va., 7-11 clerk who would identify herself only as Janice. "People already yell when you card them for beer."
"You can't card everyone all the time. It's not worth the hassle," said Cathy Beattie, co-owner of Marty's First Stop in Danville, Vt.
But stores are getting the message. Retiring FDA Commissioner David Kessler, who leaves the post after a White House tobacco ceremony today, was handed a notice at his local 7-11 warning customers to bring ID.
"If you want to go buy a beer at the ballpark, you'll be carded," Mr. Kessler said. "It's really time to start taking seriously as a nation the sale of tobacco products to young people."
Some states won't notice a big difference today. In Florida, where aggressive inspectors have caught just 18 percent of retailers selling to minors, lawbreakers simply will pay more - the $250 FDA penalty plus existing $500 state fines.
Michigan said it wants to enforce the law but can't until the FDA sends money and instructions. And Indiana Attorney General Jeffrey Modisett doesn't expect to start teen stings until May, as he awaits FDA funding to increase the mere 50 officers who now enforce both alcohol and tobacco rules.
"The federal dollars are the key," Mr. Modisett said.
The FDA hot line is (888) FDA4KIDS.
Staff Writer S.L. Spooner contributed to this article.
Beginning today, customers younger than 27 who attempt to buy cigarettes or smokeless tobacco must show a photo ID proving their age, although the legal age is still 18. Cigars and pipe tobacco are excluded.
Owners of stores - not the low-paid clerks many state laws target - will get a warning the first time the FDA catches them selling to minors and will be fined $250 for subsequent violations.
Regular customers may be carded just once, not at every visit.
Stores caught not carding 18- to 26-year-olds will not be fined, but will face more frequent undercover inspections to see if they sell to minors.
The FDA rule does not pre-empt tougher local ordinances or state laws, like those in Alaska, Alabama and Utah that make 19 the minimum tobacco age.