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Tobacco retailer inspections down dramatically

As Health Minister muses about raising smoking age, the number of retailer inspections has dropped 46% over three years in Fraser Health

The number of tobacco inspections conducted in British Columbia has fallen dramatically the last five years, with the Fraser Health Authority region seeing the largest drop, according to figures obtained by The News.

In January, B.C. Health Minister Terry Lake said it's time for the province to look at raising the legal smoking age from 19 to 21. But numbers provided by the Health Ministry to The News show that far fewer inspections are taking place to ensure retailers are abiding by the current rules.

A Fraser Health spokesperson attributed the drop to a loss of federal funding provided via Health Canada in 2012.

It was also noted that a similar decline in the number of violations has not been recorded.

The Ministry of Health called the figures an "approximate breakdown of recorded retail inspections," and cautioned that reporting standards could vary between health authorities.

Between the 2012/13 fiscal year and the 2015/16 year, the number of retail inspections across the province dropped by 29 per cent.

The Fraser Health region – which encompasses a large swath of the Lower Mainland between White Rock and the Fraser Canyon, and includes Abbotsford – saw the largest drop.

In 2012/13, 5,094 inspections were conducted in Fraser Health. By 2015/16, that figure had fallen 46 per cent to 2,742. The health authority reported a decrease in each of the three years.

Other health authorities also saw drops in the number of inspections, although none to the same degree as Fraser Health.

And some health authorities saw year-over-year increases within the last three years. Vancouver Coastal Health, for instance, saw a jump between 2012/13 and 2013/14, before recording a substantial fall last year.

Vancouver Island Health saw the reverse happen, with an immediate decrease in 2013/14 followed by two years in which the number of inspections rose.

Only Fraser Health saw decreased year-over-year inspections in each of the three years following 2012/13.

A Fraser Health spokesperson said Health Canada had provided funding for retail inspections up until 2012. When that money disappeared, that resulted in fewer retailer inspections. Inspectors employed by Fraser Health also focus on prevention, following up on complaints, and ensuring schools and other smoke-free places are meeting requirements.

A Health Ministry spokesperson wrote that "Health authorities continually educate retailers on the retail display rules and standards, reducing the need for more frequent inspections."

In Fraser Health, there has been no correlation between the number of inspections conducted and the number of violations recorded. In 2012/13, just five violations were reported. That number skyrocketed the following year to 58. The following two years have seen 23 and 30 violations recorded, respectfully.