She walked into the Roxbury convenience store like she owned the place. “Can I get a chocolate rollie?” she asked the clerk. “How many?” the clerk asked. “A single.” “We don’t have any singles.” “I’ll take a pack.”
Just like that, the 16-year-old girl left the shop with a $6 package of five, chocolate-flavored, Dutch Masters mini cigars — no questions asked. She coolly exited through a door that contained a hollow warning: UNDER 18. NO TOBACCO. WE CARD. PLEASE HAVE ID READY. The illegal transaction took under two minutes.
The teen was part of a joint undercover team working on assignment for Teens in Print and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. Her instructions were not to lie and not to carry her high school ID. The TiP/NECIR reporting squad was dispatched to stores across the city not to identify every neighborhood violator one-by-one, but to test the word on the street: that as long as you know the right places, even underage buyers find it simple to purchase rollies, the way many young people prefer to smoke marijuana these days by removing tobacco from a small cigar and replacing it with the drug.
As one 17-year-old girl from Boston Community Leadership Academy says: “Everyone I hang out with uses them, so I do, too.” Like other teens interviewed for this story, she did not want to be named. Over several hours during three days in March and April, the under-18 teen reporters found that despite intense efforts by health officials to keep these popular products out of the hands of young people — including compliance inspections; in-store education sessions; institution of a high minimum price for single cigars; controlled underage test buys; and toughened penalties for illegal sales — one quarter of the 35 stores the reporting team visited blatantly broke the law by selling the youth rollies.
The scofflaws included a corner store in Brighton, a gas mart in Mattapan, and a bodega in Roxbury. By city regulation, establishments are prohibited from selling tobacco products to anyone under 18 or they face both an escalating set of fines that starts at $200 as well as the loss of their permit to sell tobacco for a period ranging from seven days to all-out revocation. But some small shops are apparently either so desperate to make a buck – or so unwilling to challenge the customer, or so lax — that they didn’t even ask the reporters their age, let alone check IDs. Others teens say they’ve had the same experience.
“It’s very easy to get,” says a 17-year-old from Jeremiah E. Burke High School about buying rollies at a store on Blue Hill Avenue. With over 800 retailers citywide who sell tobacco products — and are part of an industry that has regular turnover — it’s a challenge for regulators to keep up.
“It is an ongoing process to get them into compliance and get them not to sell to underage youth,” says Nikysha Harding, Director of the Boston Public Health Commission’s Tobacco Prevention and Control Program, which regulates businesses selling tobacco products. Yet health officials say the use of rollies can represent a double danger for teens. “You’re exposed to nicotine as well as marijuana,” says Harding.
One 17-year-old from BCLA says he stays away from rollies because he knows that that even though the insides of the cigars are emptied, their outside leaf wrappers are made of tobacco. “Tobacco products pollute the lungs and are addictive,” he says. During the TiP/NECIR field test, one of the local shopkeepers refused to sell a $2.60 rollie to a 16-year-old reporter. Y
et the clerk was so intent on closing the sale that he suggested to the underage teen that she ask a random older customer to make the buy for her. The clerk then watched as the illicit business deal unfolded in front of him. The money passed from the minor, to the man of age, until finally resting in the cash register.
This article was produced as part of a collaboration between Teens in Print and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting based at Boston University and at the studios of WGBH News. The project is funded by the family of the late journalist and author Caroline Knapp.