Comment: 25 years on, ‘We Card,’ expands work to protect youths

Once focused on alcohol and cigarettes, retailers now check ages of those buying vaping products.

By Jan Gee, Renée Sunde and Joe Gilliam / For The Herald

It’s a simple question posed by grocery, convenience and other retail clerks every day in our state: “Can I see your ID?”

While flattering to those well over 21 years of age, it’s a split-second question that can prevent age-restricted products from being sold to minors.

That’s why retailers, in partnership with the state Department of Health and the Liquor and Cannabis Board, are promoting the 25th anniversary of the “We Card” training and education program. Gov. Jay Inslee has proclaimed September “We Card” Awareness Month in Washington state, part of a renewed effort to reduce sale of age-restricted products — like e-cigarettes — to minors. Retailers, as the primary point of contact for these products, are re-investing in the program’s employee training and are working to improve overall store compliance.

The good news is that since the “We Card” initiative began 25 years ago, we have witnessed a national decline in youth access violation rates, dropping from about 40 percent to around 10 percent. And while this is encouraging, another data point — increased youth vaping rates — suggests more must be done to step up our efforts.

Nationally, youth use of e-cigarettes is skyrocketing. According to the FDA, 2 million youths reported using e-cigarettes. By 2019, that figure more than doubled to over 5 million youths. Then last fall, Gov. Inslee enacted a temporary ban on the sale of flavored vaping products following a number of vaping-related illnesses and deaths in Washington state.

To help bend this curve, as has been done with other age-restricted products, retailers will continue to invest in the “We Card” program with employee training and awareness.

The “We Card” program provides resources; like age-of-purchase calendars and training and education materials for retail employees, making it easier to do this accurately. Many shoppers have probably seen our red, white and yellow stickers in store windows and posters at the checkout stands. Letting customers know that sales of age-restricted products to minors helps put potential purchasers on notice. But that’s just a small piece of the “We Card” process: The strength of the program is in a sales associate asking to see ID.

With “We Card,” employees must then evaluate the customer’s ID and photo, check the bar code, expiration date, and calculate the customer’s age using the ID’s date of birth with an age-calculation tool.

Still, even with these resources, employees can’t become “experts” at guessing ages. That’s why the program continues to emphasize clerks to “THINK 30”; if there’s any question the customer appears to be 30 or younger, they should check ID. Underage customers are creative; with appearances or false IDs. By investing in our employees, we hope to take the guesswork out of it for them, and prevent sales of age-restricted products to minors.

Any underage sale is unacceptable. We continue to invest in “We Card” because it does make a difference in preventing sales of alcohol, tobacco and e-vapor products to minors.

So, if a store clerk asks to check your ID, don’t get frustrated. Just know the clerk is doing their job; one part of a bigger, national strategic effort to curb the epidemic of teen vaping.

Our children’s health depends on it.

Jan Gee is the president and chief executive of the Washington Food Industry Association. Renée Sunde is the president and chief executive of the Washington Retailer Association. Joe Gilliam is the president of the Northwest Grocery Association.

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