Introduction: Availability of tobacco to young people is believed to be an important factor in the onset of tobacco use. We still do not have a complete picture of how tobacco is obtained by youths or how access can be curtailed.
Design: This article describes tobacco availability to youths in 14 communities that are part of a randomized trial, known as TPOP (Tobacco Policy Options for Prevention). The data reported here were obtained from student surveys and tobacco-purchase attempts by underage confederates.
Results: Students who have smoked at least once were likely to cite social sources for cigarettes. However, more than half of weekly smokers and almost one third of tenth-grade ever smokers reported purchasing cigarettes in the last 30 days. Tobacco-purchase attempts by confederate buyers at all outlets resulted in an overall success rate of 40.8%, lower than previously reported for urban communities. Fifty-five percent of the over-the-counter outlets had no self-service displays of tobacco at baseline. Store factors that predicted purchase success include tobacco location; purchase success was lower when all tobacco was locked or behind a service counter. The percentage of smokers who reported purchasing their own tobacco soon after starting to smoke was highest in towns where purchase success by teenage study confederates was highest.
Conclusions: These results suggest that sources of cigarettes shift from social to commercial with age and that sources of cigarettes for rural youths may be different than for urban youths.