MERCED -- Merced County and several of its cities are getting failing grades when it comes to tobacco control.
Merced, Atwater, Livingston, Los Banos, Gustine and Dos Palos received an F in the "State of Tobacco Control 2013" report released Wednesday by the American Lung Association in California.
The report grades all cities and counties in the state on key tobacco control policies and follows money trails to see how the tobacco industry attracts smokers, especially children and young people.
"There's an opportunity to do more to protect Merced County from tobacco use and minimize exposure to secondhand smoke," said Cindy Valencia, a supervising health educator for the Merced County Department of Public Health.
The report grades each county and city based on three criteria: smoke-free outdoor air, smoke-free housing, and reducing sales of tobacco products.
Polls have shown that more than 80 percent of California renters prefer to live in apartment complexes where smoking is not allowed or that have separate smoking and nonsmoking sections, Valencia said.
That provides an opportunity to work with landlords to create smoke-free housing to meet renters' demands, she said.
Over the past year, the public health department has worked with the California Health Collaborative and the Boys and Girls Club of Merced County on tobacco control efforts, Valencia said.
Evi Hernandez of the California Health Collaborative, said one goal is to work with at least one city in Merced County to adopt tobacco retail licensing.
Such an ordinance would place a fee on tobacco retailers, he said. The money would then be used to pay law enforcement to make compliance checks to ensure that retailers are not selling tobacco to minors, Hernandez said.
If a business is caught, it could lose its license or it could be suspended, depending on the ordinance, he said.
The health collaborative, which runs the Merced County Tobacco Control program, has been working with Livingston for about a year to try to get the City Council to approve such an ordinance. He hopes the council will adopt an ordinance by June 30.
"We know that it's going to take a while for the cities and county to adopt these kinds of ordinances, but if we start at least with one individual community, we can get the ball moving and hopefully get the different communities and the county to consider doing more of these policy adoptions," Hernandez said.
A national report that graded states also was released Wednesday. It gave California an A for smoke-free air policies, said Melanie Ruvalcaba with the American Lung Association in California.
However, the state received a D for its low cigarette tax of 87 cents per pack, an F for failing to adequately fund tobacco prevention control programs and an F for poor promotion of smoking cessation and treatment services, she said.
The state is not spending money at the level recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Ruvalcaba said. "It is disappointing to see California, who used to be the leader, really fall behind," she said.
Ruvalcaba said people are working hard to make change happen, but that it won't "unless you have a lot of movement with elected officials."
Reporter Yesenia Amaro can be reached at (209)385-2482 or firstname.lastname@example.org.