Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio says he warned businesses that if they sold tobacco to young teens, he’d come after them.
And on Wednesday, armed with deputies with handcuffs and a bevy of undercover teens, he came through on his promise.
The project dubbed “Operation Butt-Out IV” began last March and targeted stores, gas stations and hotels in 16 Valley communities including Chandler, Mesa, Scottsdale and Tempe.
Teens as young as 13 worked with the sheriff’s office and attempted to buy tobacco 4,584 times, Arpaio said. They were successful 27 percent of the time — 1,227 occasions during this phase of the operation.
The sales were rung up by clerks at a variety of businesses, from convenience stores to high-end tourist sites.
The sales made at the resorts and hotels involved cigars. One was sold at the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa, one at the Fairmont Scottsdale Princess resort, two at the Marriott’s Buttes Resort in Tempe, one at The Phoenician Resort in Scottsdale, and one at the Ritz-Carlton in Phoenix.
But those were just a fraction of the total number of illegal tobacco sales.
Arpaio said the majority took place at family-owned stores and carnicerías — Hispanic butcher shops and grocers. Those stores accounted for 61 percent of the sales — 751.
As the sun was setting, deputy Mike Milsaps was hauling three teenage girls in his sport utility vehicle. He pulled into the alley behind Lee $1.00 Mart at McDowell Road and 34th Avenue.
The girls walked into the store where cigarettes are kept behind the counter and the boxes on the floor are filled with everything from flip-flops to mops and brooms.
Within seconds, the girls picked out a pack of Marlboros and purchased it for $5. Then, Milsaps and volunteer posse members approached the clerk — a 23-year-old Phoenix woman — cuffed her and explain the offense.
The woman had two choices: She could either sign the citation and submit to fingerprinting, or refuse to sign the document and be booked into jail, Milsaps said.
She signed the paperwork and eventually resumed her post behind the counter. She faces a $300 fine.
Arpaio said the project shows that businesses are more concerned about making money than they are about saving children from the health risks of smoking.
Phoenix had the highest percentage of businesses that sold to minors during Operation Butt-Out: 85 percent, or 1,046 sales.
In the East Valley, 30 businesses sold to teens in Mesa, 23 in Scottsdale, 28 in Tempe, and two in Chandler, the sheriff’s office said.
While Operation Butt-Out commenced a decade ago not much has changed, Arpaio said. Teens are still able to buy tobacco 27 percent to 30 percent of the time.