Hanna Park and Ashley Kostopoulous are best friends who share everything, including a cigarette habit they acquired a year and a half ago.
"We usually share a pack, and it's usually done in a day," said 16-year-old Ashley, standing next to a convenience store at Jane Street and Weston Road.
Yesterday, merchants who supply them and thousands of other Torontonians under 19 -- the legal age for buying cigarettes in Ontario -- were the target of a crackdown by Toronto police and municipal and federal health officials that resulted in charges against 10 firms and 64 people under the Tobacco Control Act.
The sweep was part of the city's Not to Kids campaign, launched yesterday to coincide with World No Tobacco Day.
Despite stiff fines for selling to underage smokers, countless variety stores, gas stations and late-night doughnut shops sell packs and single cigarettes to young people, Sergeant Bruce Cottrell said. Health officials say these merchants are guilty of undermining young peoples' health.
"Anyone who sells or supplies cigarettes to youth is contributing to a serious addiction that could result in many health problems," Dr. Sheela Basrur, Toronto's medical officer of health, said in a statement Monday. Even so, most young smokers find it too easy to feed a nicotine craving.
"We get our friends to get them for us because they look older," 15-year-old Hanna said with a shrug, swinging a pink Hello Kitty vinyl purse. "Sometimes we buy them straight from the store, but it depends on the store. . . . I don't try at big stores, but the ones I go to I know I can get them."
Ashley agreed and gestured toward a nearby 7-Eleven. "Big stores won't [sell to minors] but a mini one will," she said.
Sgt. Cottrell said that since March, plainclothes officers and health department officials have followed up on complaints from the community about cigarette sales to minors.
"They found some of the stores selling single cigarettes and doubles to minors," he said, referring to convenience stores, gas station kiosks and doughnut stores along Rogers Road, Eglinton Avenue and St. Clair Avenue.
"Most of these places are ma-and-pa-owned places," he said.
Prices run as high as 50 cents a cigarette, "which would put the cost of a pack up pretty high," Sgt. Cottrell said. At that price, 20 cigarettes would cost $10 before tax, instead of about $3.50.
Toronto Public Health reported 22.6 per cent of Ontario students said they smoked daily in 1999. Hanna and Ashley aren't surprised.
They smoke most of their 10 cigarettes a day at Runnymede Collegiate Institute, where they are Grade 10 students, or while just hanging out.
Chun Ja Lee has owned Helen's Variety at Jane and Weston for 22 years. She says she has as many as six minors a day ask for smokes.
"Sometimes they send the big people in to buy for them," said Ms. Lee. "Now, never, ever again. I got so scared."
The merchants charged yesterday are scheduled to appear in Provincial Court in July. If convicted, they face probation or fines averaging from $215 for a first offence up to a maximum of $4,000, Sgt. Cottrell said.
Since 1995, Toronto Public Health has laid 650 charges against Toronto retailers. Those convicted twice or more often of selling tobacco to minors or selling cigarettes out of the pack face prohibition orders barring them from selling or storing cigarettes for six months or more.