How “secret shopping” teens prevent access to tobacco: Fel Pajimula explains

For National Public Health Week (April 3-9th), we’re celebrating by featuring unsung public health heroes who make our communities safer and healthier. Each day, we’ll highlight a public health worker through their own words, sharing their work and why they’re committed to serving our community.

Today, we talk with Fel Pajimula of our Tobacco Prevention Program who partners with teens to ensure tobacco retailers are responsible with their products by not selling to minors. It’s a job that couldn’t be done without the help of youth in our community. With nearly 9 out of 10 smokers starting by age 18, helping to prevent tobacco sales to minors can curb a lifetime of addiction.

How and why did you get started working in public health?
I’ve always had an interest in mentoring youth and young adults since graduating college. Prior to coming to Public Health, I worked with high schoolers in community-based organizations and developed peer-to-peer drug prevention an education programs. I still remember the stories of students who watched relatives suffer from diseases due to long-term tobacco use and how that impacted them.  That’s why I do this work.

What does your day look like working with students to monitor tobacco sales?

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Fel Pajimula of Public Health’s Tobacco Prevention Program with volunteer student on an inspection

I  leave my office to pick up the student or students and we head out to inspect the stores. I take them out of their local community—it’s like a mini-road trip. Under my supervision, the high school student will go into a store on their own and attempt to purchase cigarettes, e-cigarettes, or vapor products. They use their real ID that shows they are underage.

We have fairly high compliance in our county. There are about 2,000 licensed tobacco and vapor retailers and a student may get sold to one out of every 10 or 15 visits. So typically, the student comes back to the car and I will go back in the store to congratulate the clerk and provide retailer education materials and resources.

When a student does get sold to, the two of us will go into the store together. I then provide educational materials and write-up a report which goes to the Liquor and Cannabis Board. They are responsible for administering fines.

How do stores react?
It’s all over the map. Some will say, “I knew they (the student) were with you!” or, “I haven’t seen you in awhile.” Other times, we will get strong adverse reactions, upset that we are doing these “stings.” We even get some stores who are appreciative and say things like, “Glad you are out here keeping us on our toes.”

How does the student react when they are sold tobacco?
To be honest, the student doesn’t like it when they are sold tobacco. Many of our students understand how tobacco can be more addicting the sooner someone starts smoking, but they also find it awkward to go back into the store and stand face-to-face with the clerk, whether it’s a privately-owned corner store or a large corporate grocery or drug store. It’s a powerful moment for education.

Interestingly, the students also have to build up the confidence to hear “no,” given the majority of stores are responsible with the product they sell. Even though it’s the outcome we want, they must develop a tolerance for rejection because sometimes that “no” isn’t so friendly. At times, the clerk will even confiscate the ID which can create an interesting situation. These short interactions build confidence for dealing with people on the fly.

I had one teacher tell me that their student started to come out of their shell after working with us on these inspections. It takes a lot of confidence for the teens to do this work. That’s why I work with the students, provide training and remind them that it’s not about them, it’s about the situation.

What is new in your work or has recently changed?
We are struggling a lot with digital vapor products. Since you plug these devices in just like other devices, and some have small screens with digital information, teens associate these devices with any other digital gadget. The association of the vaping device as a digital gadget normalizes vaping and for some reason, makes them seem “safer.” We have to think about how trendy these devices have become and the “cool factor.”

Is there something about your work that makes you proud to work for Public Health?
Exposing high-school students to real-world activities of public health. We talk about how education and monitoring can have a cascading affect and lead to better norms. It’s not just about the one clerk they may interact with—that educational moment will likely reach the other employees in the store and managers may share their experience with other similar stores, further reducing youth access to tobacco and vapor products.

What is one thing you would like the public to know about the work that you do?public health is essential
Delaying or preventing tobacco addiction is the bigger picture of why I do this, knowing that the later teens experiment, the less likely they are to become life-long addicts.

Originally posted April 5, 2017