Six establishments in Santa Barbara and Goleta – including at least one Isla Vista business – could receive official citations from the county or see their tobacco licenses go up in smoke following a countywide sting operation in mid-February.

The tobacco sting, which was conducted by the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Dept. and the Santa Barbara County Public Health Dept., targeted 53 stores in the area, six of which were caught selling tobacco to underage decoys, said Lisa Gilbert, health educator for the Santa Barbara County Public Health Dept.’s Tobacco Prevention Settlement Program. Gilbert said the Public Health Dept. can not release specific information about the details of the sting until all the retailers have been informed about the charges against them and the cases have been brought to trial.

An employee of Sam’s To Go, located at 6560 Pardall Road in I.V., confirmed that the business was cited for selling hookah tobacco to an underage customer as part of the sting operation. The employee, who declined to give his name, said the Sheriff’s Dept. has not notified the business of the penalties it may face, as of yet.

When a business is caught selling tobacco to minors during a sting, the officer conducting the operation immediately tickets the store clerk, Gilbert said. Business owners are then notified via mail of any violations of state and local law that were committed during the sting, and the consequences of further violations.

Gilbert said stores receive a warning for their first offense and can potentially have their tobacco licenses suspended for 30 days for a second citation, 90 days for a third citation, and a year for the fourth citation. If a business is cited for more than four violations, it could permanently lose its tobacco license, Gilbert said.

Dawn Dunn, director of the Public Health Dept.’s Tobacco Prevention Settlement Program, said the Sheriff’s Dept. targets almost all local businesses that sell tobacco during its sting operations. She said the employees of each ticketed store have a chance to tell their side of the story in court.

“Nothing is finalized until they’ve gone to court,” Dunn said. “[The businesses] haven’t been fined or found in violation of the law yet. Everyone has a chance to appeal [the ticket].”

I.V. Deli Mart employee Sam Hassan said his store has been the target of undercover sting operations in the past. He said the store has never been cited for selling tobacco to minors.

“It’s happened four times already,” Hassan said. “We checked the IDs each time [that] the police were sent to see if we’d sell to underage people. We haven’t been fined.”

The Sheriff’s Dept. conducts sting operations twice a year because of the high incidence of tobacco sales to minors in the Santa Barbara area, Gilbert said. She said the department allows some time to pass between the stings so that businesses can change their policies before being targeted again.

“We wanted to give the retailers a chance to improve,” Gilbert said. “We wanted the rates to go down. In the last [sting], they actually went down, which is what we wanted.”

According to a Public Health Dept. press release, a total of 34 out of 89 stores targeted sold tobacco products to underage decoys during a similar sting operation in June 2005,

The Public Health Dept. funds the sting operations through grant money it receives from alcohol and tobacco settlements. The Sheriff’s Dept. is contracted to apply the grant, which totals more than $11,000 annually. Gilbert said the grant continues to be renewed as long as there are adequate funds, but she said she thinks upcoming budget cuts could cause the program to be cut back.

In the Public Health Dept. press release, Director Elliot Schulman said he thinks it is important for the department to restrict sales of tobacco to minors.

“The Public Health Dept. remains deeply concerned over the fact that 15- and 16-year-olds are easily able to purchase tobacco products,” Schulman said. “Our department remains committed to working with the vast number of law-abiding business owners and also partnering with merchants to prevent youth from having access to tobacco.”