By DAN D'AMBROSIO/Associated Press Writer
HELENA - Nearly nine of every 10 merchants are complying with a new state program to reduce the sale of tobacco to minors, Gov. Judy Martz said Friday in a ceremony to recognize the program.
''Reward and Reminder'' was launched last fall in 10 counties in response to a national survey showing Montana ranked sixth worst in stopping sales of tobacco to minors.
That survey found about 22 percent of Montana merchants made illegal sales of cigarettes, chewing tobacco or other tobacco products to minors, said Ken Taylor, Department of Public Health and Human Services spokesman.
Taylor said neighboring states like Wyoming, which also has a ''Reward and Reminder'' program, are doing better than Montana in preventing tobacco sales to minors.
Using a ''sting'' operation, the ''Reward and Reminder'' program sends an adult and minor into a business, where the minor tries to buy tobacco products.
If the clerk sells to the minor, the adult reminds the clerk that doing so is illegal. If the clerk refuses to sell to the minor, the clerk's name is entered in a drawing for a $100 gift certificate.
On Friday, Martz awarded a gift certificate to Katie Jeske, a bartender at the Overland Express restaurant in Helena, who refused to sell to a minor.
''Alert and conscious individuals like Katie are our first line of defense (against tobacco sales to minors),'' Martz said.
The governor said the goal of the ''Reward and Reminder'' program was to raise the compliance rate among Montana merchants for refusing to sell tobacco products to minors to 90 percent. The statewide rate is currently about 78 percent.
The health department is in the middle of a new statewide compliance survey, but won't have numbers until this fall, Taylor said.