By Stephanie Stahl

PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — Philadelphia health officials are cracking down on businesses illegally selling tobacco products to kids. Smoking that causes cancer and heart disease is a big health problem in Philly and the city’s health department named stores caught repeatedly selling tobacco products to minors on Wednesday.

Among the repeat offenders were mini markets, laundry mats and the Family Dollar stores scattered around Philadelphia — all of which were caught selling to minors. Now, they’ve lost their permits to sell tobacco products.

“We hope that this action today will send a message to the other stores in the city that we’re serious. If they continue to sell to kids, they’re going to lose their tobacco sales privileges,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said.

Farley says the city has taken action against 149 stores caught selling tobacco to kids three or more times in the past two years.

“These stores are concentrated in low-income, minority neighborhoods. These are kids that have a lot of other problems to deal with, we don’t want them to also be caught getting addicted to smoking or nicotine products as well,” Farley said.

Smoking is the No. 1 underlying killer in Philadelphia, responsible for 3,500 deaths a year.

“We know that 80% of smokers start before the age of 18,” Farley said. “If we can prevent teenagers from getting addicted in the first place, our smoking rates for adults will be lower and we’ll be a much healthier city.”

The health department conducts random compliance checks by sending adolescents into stores. If they’re able to buy tobacco products, the business is ticketed.

“Teenagers are trained and they go in with an adult chaperone. If they’re able to purchase that tobacco product, we write them a ticket, cite them for a violation,” Farley said.

Stores caught with repeated sales to minors are not eligible to renew their tobacco sales permits for one year.

The 149 stores now without permits represent 7% of the 2,600 in Philadelphia that are licensed to sell tobacco products.

Federally, the legal age to buy tobacco has been raised from 18 to 21.

City officials encourage concerned citizens to report illegal sales of tobacco products by texting “smoke” to 474747 or call 1-888-99-SMOKE.

Stephanie Stahl