Illegal tobacco sales to youth: A view from rational choice theory

The following post has two assignments namely;

1.Illegal tobacco sales to youth: A view from rational choice theory

This week’s reading by O’Grady et al. discusses the willingness of merchants to illegally sell tobacco to youth, with the incorporation of rational choice theory to help understand why legal violators choose to offend (O’Grady et al., 2000). The Ontario Tobacco Control Act (OCTA) legislates and “addresses issues of smoking in public places, related signage, and tobacco sales” in Ontario (O’Grady et al., 2000). Rather than focusing on why youth choose to smoke tobacco, this research focuses on factors that influence the merchants’ decision on selling tobacco to youth who ask to purchase it (O’Grady et al., 2000). The design of the study to determine merchant willingness to sell tobacco illegally to youth was conducted using retailer compliance checks, which involved underage youth volunteers between 13 and 18 to test merchant willingness to sell them tobacco (O’Grady et al., 2000). With the merchants set as the dependent variable, two sets of factors (background and event specific) were included to test if it affected illegal sales.
From the reading, there were three factors that were worth noting in relation to rational choice theory:

1. Law Enforcement
Under rational choice theory, it is theorized that “crime is calculated and deliberate” and engaging in criminal activity is based on rational choice to maximize profit and minimize losses (O’Grady et al., 2000). That means, whether an individual decides to commit a type of crime is dependant on the situational context that he/she is in (O’Grady et al., 2000). Ideally, an increase of police presence and tobacco inspectors from health units in such areas can help deter individuals from engaging in illegal sales due to the higher risk of being exposed. This is true to some extent, as the article mentioned that merchants were less inclined to illegally sell tobacco when there is law enforcement activity in their community (O’Grady et al., 2000). The charge rate, which was the number of times charges were laid against a tobacco merchant per 100,000 population, was examined to measure the effect of law enforcement. It was found that merchants with lower charge rates were more likely to illegally sell tobacco, in comparison to a drop in illegal sales in merchants with higher charge rates (O’Grady et al., 2000). However, there are limitations in law enforcement that occur when other factors are considered, such as time of day of illegal sales, as tobacco inspectors typically work a 9:00 to 17:00 job and illegal sales are more successful during the night (O’Grady et al., 2000).

2. Background Factors
This included the type of business operation of the merchant (e.g. gas station or convenient store), rural or urban areas, and if the area was a tobacco producing region (O’Grady et al., 2000). Merchant compliance with the law had been associated with the type of business according to previous research, and these retailers represent all possible places where tobacco could have been legally available in Ontario (O’Grady et al., 2000). It was found that rural populations of less than 5,000 had merchants more willing to sell tobacco illegally because of the assumption that the risk of them getting caught or charged is insignificant (O’Grady et al., 2000). In addition, rural merchants were also more likely to know who the tobacco inspectors are when they entered the store. This meant that in urban populations, merchants were less likely to engage in illegal sales because of the anonymity of the inspectors, which increased the risk of being exposed to selling to underage youth (O’Grady et al., 2000). Lastly, whether the area was a tobacco producing region having any influence on merchants selling illegally to minors varied. When these factors were introduced into Model 2 of the study, surprisingly it was found that they do not have any considerable influence in the illegal sales of tobacco (O’Grady et al., 2000).

3. Event Specific Factors
The strongest influence of merchants selling tobacco illegally resulted from four event specific factors: 1) time of the day; 2) age of the volunteer youth team; 3) gender of the youth team; and legal compliance behavior of the merchants (O’Grady et al., 2000). During school hours, the success rate of merchants selling to the youth team was low due to higher suspicion compared to night attempts, as the shifts are often picked up by youth/young adults who are more willing to sell illegally as they can empathize the situation (O’Grady et al., 2000). In addition, female youth volunteers were more likely to get sold tobacco illegally compare to males because they looked older. In terms of legal compliance, merchants who also comply with other tobacco related laws like asking for identification are less likely to engage in illegal sales (O’Grady et al., 2000). With these four specific factors considered, the impact between illegal sales and the charge rate of merchants were significantly different.

Personal Thoughts
I think this article was selected because it makes us think about the relationship between criminological theories and policies. That is, policies arise from theories of why certain crime occurs, and it attempts to deter or minimize the harm. But it doesn’t stop there, theories would then begin to form based on the results of the policies created and the cycle continues on (think about Dr. Faubert’s Figure 3.1 : Theory/Policy Nexus image from this week’s module). As such, I think criminologists are constantly challenged to view crime and criminal behavior from different angles. With this article, it mentioned that a legislation which required anyone who appeared under 25 would be asked to show ID can help further deter illegal sales, which I think is a promising idea as physical appearance can be misleading when determining age. What was interesting and remains unresolved to me was the fact that there were still merchants who willingly decided to sell tobacco illegally to underage youth. It’s just hard personally to grasp the logic behind their cognitive decision.

1. Aside from rational choice theory, do you see any other possible criminological theories that can be used to explain why a merchant would be willing to sell tobacco illegally to underage youths? Is profit the only benefit?

2. Over the years we have seen policies implemented that require tobacco companies to have pictorial warnings and labels indicating the dangers of smoking on its packaging. In addition, places where tobacco is legally sold can ID anyone who appears under 25. In your opinion, are these policies really helping in deterring illegal sales to underage youths? Are legal fines sufficient enough even when a merchant has repeated charges for illegal sales? Should there be another form of penalty for these merchants?


Write a coherent three-paragraph essay (three pages) in which you address all of the following questions:
1. Describe an argument to which you responded (or might have responded) “But that’s not logical!”
2. Now describe an argument in which you found yourself saying (or might have found yourself saying) “OK, that seems logical.”
3. Finally, based on what you’ve come up with in #1 and #2, define “logic.”

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