LEE -- Local health officials want a $25,000 state grant to provide store clerks easier access to mandatory training in an effort to prevent tobacco sales to minors.

The Tri-Town Health Department plans to use the funds toward converting its six-year-old Tobacco Retailer Training Certification Program into an online course by late this summer according to Tri-Town officials. The grant is one of 27 totaling $2.25 million Governor Deval Patrick recently announced through his administration's Community Innovation Challenge funding initiative.

Tri-Town oversees the state's tobacco awareness program in a 12-community collaborative, which includes Pittsfield, Great Barrington and the agency's three member towns of Lee, Lenox and Stockbridge. They, along with member towns Lanesborough, Otis and Monterey, mandate store employees must be certified to sell cigarettes, cigars and related items in order to prevent those under 18 years of age from buying tobacco products.

Currently, Tri-Town conducts, in person, the roughly two-hour tobacco training session for the employees of 90 tobacco retail stores within the eight Berkshire communities that require the training.

"The primary goal is to make the program sustainable with cost savings for us and the retailers," said Tri-Town Director James J. Wilusz.

Wilusz noted an online course would likely eliminate the need for scheduling twice-a-month training sessions. He added that retailers could save on money spent sending their employees to the class. However, store owners will continue to pay an annual fee per location, determined by the number of store clerks.

"A lot of stores have a lot of turnover, thus the need for constant training," Wilusz said.

The Tobacco Retailer Training Certification Program -- the only one in Massachusetts -- has proven effective in reducing tobacco sales to minors, according to Tri-Town officials.

The Lee-based agency reported 75 sales to minors in the member municipalities from July 2006 through June 2007. Once the training began in September 2007, the number of annual violations eventually fell to the single digits from July 2008 through June of last year, except for an unexplained spike of 22 violations in 2011.

Repeated violations could result in fines and suspension or loss of a tobacco retailer's license.

Wilusz says store clerks must also be re-certified every three years, in part, because local state and federal regulations regarding the sale of tobacco products is constantly changing.

Tri-Town also plans to help tobacco retail employees kick the habit, as nearly half smoke based on the agency's survey of trainees in 2011.

"We've partnered with Berkshire Health Systems to help clerks deal with cessation programs," Wilusz said.

To reach Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233.