Secret Agent Girl
Connie Lau goes undercover to bust stores that sell cigarettes to kids
Connie Lau despises smoking. “It smells awful, and it’s so bad for you,” she tells Choices. “It breaks my heart to see my friends smoking. I try to get them to quit.”
So why does Connie walk into convenience stores and try to buy cigarettes? She is testing to see if stores will sell cigarettes to a minor—a kid who is younger than 18. “You have to be 18 to purchase cigarettes, and I’m 16, so if they sell to me, they’re breaking the law,” Connie says.
Connie isn’t a vigilante; she works with local police in her town of Castro Valley, California. Officers drive her to stores, and she goes in alone to try to buy cigarettes. If the person behind the counter sells her a pack, an officer comes in and writes the business a ticket for breaking the law.
Most stores obey the law and don’t sell her cigarettes. The law requires that customers show ID if store employees ask them to. “When they ask your age, you can’t lie,” Connie says. “Most stores don’t sell to me. In a year, we’ve visited almost 150 stores and had only 15 sales.”
Busting a store is a thrill. “The first time I was sold cigarettes was exciting,” Connie says. “Afterward, when the officer was writing the ticket, the cashier kept saying, ‘She looked old enough!’ She stared at me the entire time. I smiled and waved.”
But working undercover can be scary too, even with police nearby. Connie said one cashier refused to sell her cigarettes and then got angry when he found out her age. He threatened to call the authorities. “To calm him down, the police went in to explain that I was undercover,” she says.
Most teens wouldn’t think of going undercover for the police. What’s Connie’s motivation? For starters, she can’t stand smoking. But she also believes it’s important for young people like her to try to make a real impact in their communities. In her view, teens can do more than get good grades in school, do chores at home, and excel in extracurricular activities.
Every time she stops the sale of cigarettes to minors, she’s helping to uphold the law. “A single teenager can make a big difference,” Connie says. “For the most part, when stores get caught, they learn their lesson and don’t do it again.”