Arrests, fines at Suffolk stores accused of selling vapes to minors

Nearly a third of Suffolk convenience stores and gas stations targeted in a recent undercover operation by county law enforcement illegally sold nicotine vaping cartridges to minors, often in e-cigarette flavors banned by the state, officials announced Monday in Yaphank.

In total, 17 of 53 businesses targeted since mid-March by the Suffolk County Police Department, or 32%, were issued citations which come with a $1,000 fine for a first offense — and $2,000 thereafter. The investigation also led to the arrest of 18 store employees. Those employees were charged with second-degree unlawfully dealing with a child, a misdemeanor, and issued desk appearance tickets. The businesses remained open.

Meanwhile, 3,000 illegal vaping products were seized April 25 from a gas station in Shirley — the second largest seizure of its kind in Suffolk County history, officials said. The seized products, police said, will be incinerated.

“The majority of business are following the law,” said Acting Police Commissioner Robert Waring on Monday as he stood before the seized products. “But approximately 30% of the stores checked sold to underage people. And that is simply too much. Young people often do not understand the health risks of nicotine use. We rely on the store selling these products to check IDs and to only sell to those legally permitted.”

The police crackdown, known as Operation Smoke Out, used minors to try and purchase vaping products, officials said. The recent raids, which targeted shops in Mastic, Shirley and South Huntington that were identified by community complaints, will expand to other areas.

“Do not sell them to people under 21,” Suffolk County Executive Edward P. Romaine said of the vaping products. “It is not legal in the state and we will enforce it.”

Retailers statewide cannot sell vaping products to people under the age of 21, nor can they sell flavors other than tobacco, mint or menthol. Flavored vaping products, however, are widely available online and across the country.

Among the cartridges seized by law enforcement were flavors such as dragonfruit, grape ice, strawberry kiwi and rainbow candy. None of the cartridges, police official said, contained THC, the high-producing chemical found in marijuana and related-vaping products

After the use of tobacco vaping among high school-aged students exploded around 2017, the use of e-cigarettes fell significantly last year, new nationwide data shows.

The percentage of high school students who reported vaping tobacco in the previous 30 days fell between 2022 and 2023, from 14.1% to 10%, according to results of the National Youth Tobacco Survey released in November. But experts expressed concern about increased tobacco use by students in grades six to eight, and the nearly 30% of high school students across the country using e-cigarettes who said they were doing so daily.

“We need to keep these products out of the hands of our youth,” said Suffolk Health Commissioner Gregson Pigott. “These products are highly addictive. One of them can have even more nicotine than an entire pack of cigarettes.”

Kent Sopris, president of the New York State Association of Convenience Stores, said he supports the crackdown and would like to see even greater enforcement.

“These illegal disposable flavored vapes are part of a pipeline that starts in China and ends in the hands of our children because bad actors know that federal and state regulators do virtually nothing to stop them,” Sopris said. “Suffolk County and a patchwork of other localities are literally the only line of defense here and they should be commended for filling the void. That said, the lack of urgency from others in government is unconscionable and that needs to change.”


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