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Ribisl KM, Williams RS, Kim AE. Internet Sales of Cigarettes to Minors. JAMA. 2003;290(10):1356–1359. doi:10.1001/jama.290.10.1356
Author Affiliations: Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, School of Public Health, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (Dr Ribisl and Mss Williams and Kim), and the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center (Dr Ribisl), Chapel Hill.
Context There is growing concern that the Internet might become a source of
tobacco products for minors. Although researchers have studied tobacco sales
to minors at retail outlets for more than a decade, there are no published
studies of tobacco sales to minors via the Internet.
Objective To determine the proportion of Internet cigarette vendors that will
sell cigarettes to minors.
Design, Setting, and Participants Cross-sectional study conducted in April-July 2001. Under adult supervision,
4 adolescents aged 11 to 15 years attempted to purchase cigarettes via 55
Internet cigarette vendors located in 12 states. These minors made a total
of 83 purchase attempts, paying by credit card (n = 47) and by money order
(n = 36).
Main Outcome Measure Proportion of Internet cigarette vendors that sold cigarettes to minors.
Results Minors successfully received cigarettes for 93.6% of credit card purchase
attempts and for 88.9% of money order purchase attempts. Age was never verified
for any of these deliveries. Internet vendors sent a total of 1650 packs of
cigarettes to the underage adolescents in this study.
Conclusion Minors appear to have easy access to cigarettes via the Internet because
many Internet vendors have weak or nonexistent age verification procedures.
There is growing concern that the Internet might become a source of
tobacco products for minors.1-3 Recent
studies suggest that 2% to 3% of adolescent smokers report purchasing cigarettes
through the Internet.4-6 Minors
appear to have easy access to tobacco via the Internet because most vendors
do not have adequate age verification methods.7 The
most common age verification method is self-report, whereby online buyers
click a box stating that they are of legal age to purchase tobacco products
(48.9%) or type in a birth date (14.8%). These methods are unlikely to deter
adolescents who might lie about their age. Only 6.8% of Internet cigarette
vendors claimed on their Web sites that they would require recipients to show
photographic age identification at the point of delivery.7
To date, there are no published, peer-reviewed studies that assess whether
minors can successfully purchase cigarettes online. The goals of this study
were to determine whether minors can successfully purchase cigarettes from
Internet vendors and to examine age verification procedures at the point of
Internet vendors were identified from an earlier study (January 2000)
of the sales practices of Internet cigarette vendors.8 Because
no comprehensive list of Internet cigarette vendors is available, for that
study, 4 search terms (eg, discount cigarettes) were entered into 4 search
engines and the first 100 hits were examined, along with all sites listed
on an Internet search catalog and mentioned in a news article. Altogether,
1808 Web sites were screened to identify 88 unique sites in the United States.
All of these 88 Web sites were revisited in March 2001 to verify that the
Web site was still active, sold cigarettes either by money order or credit
card, sold outside of their home state, and was not part of a buyer's club
that required membership for purchasing. Of the original 88 Web sites, 22
were inactive, 6 did not allow money order or credit card purchasing, 2 did
not sell outside of their home state, and 3 were buyer's clubs, leaving 55
Internet vendors eligible for this study. We compared the percentages of the
33 excluded sites and the 55 included sites that were based at an Indian reservation,
had a retail shop, featured an age warning on their Web site, verified age
with a check box, and stated that age would be verified at delivery. The included
sites were significantly more likely than excluded sites to have an age warning
(P = .004).
The lead author (K.M.R.) recruited 4 North Carolina adolescents through
personal contact with parents. Research staff held an information and training
session with the adolescents and their parents. Two adolescents were male,
2 were female, and all ranged in age from 11 to 15 years. None were smokers.
All compliance checks were conducted between April and July 2001. Each
adolescent worked with a member of the research staff (R.S.W. or A.E.K.) for
each purchase attempt. Staff provided the adolescent with the Web site address
or uniform resource locator of each Internet vendor. Adolescents then purchased
Marlboro cigarettes, the leading brand among adolescents,9 or
the cheapest brand available if the site did not sell Marlboro. The adolescent
buyers ordered the minimum number of cartons required by the Internet vendor.
Each adolescent attempted to purchase cigarettes from approximately
one quarter of the sites. For the 28 Web sites that offered both credit card
and money order payment options, one adolescent purchased with a credit card
and another adolescent with a money order. For sites allowing money orders,
minors printed out an order form from the Web site and filled out their ordering
information. A research staff member gave each adolescent cash and then escorted
him/her to purchase the money order at a post office or a grocery store. No
adolescent was asked for age identification or the purpose of the money orders.
The money orders were sold blank, and the adolescent filled in the name of
the Internet vendor when they returned to the researcher's office. The order
form and money order were then mailed to the Internet vendor.
For sites allowing credit card purchases, adolescents were given a prepaid,
reloadable Visa card marketed to teenagers. One adolescent was younger than
13 years, the required minimum age for this card, and used a parent's credit
card for her 12 purchases. Adolescents typed in all of the ordering information
on the Web site, including the credit card information.
If the Web site or mail order form asked purchasers whether they were
of legal age to purchase tobacco products, adolescents indicated "yes." If
asked for their birth date, adolescents used fake dates that would make them
18 to 21 years old. Adolescents were each given fake names for privacy but
used their real mailing addresses. If a driver's license number was requested
during ordering, a fake one was entered. If a copy of a photographic age identification
card (eg, driver's license) was requested by fax or mail, none was submitted.
Many of the Internet vendors requested the buyer's e-mail address and
telephone number. Research staff established and monitored temporary e-mail
accounts for each adolescent and vendors were given the phone number of one
of the adult research staff members.
The adolescents answered the door as much as possible during the study
period, allowing them to receive the deliveries. If the delivery person gave
the package of cigarettes to the adolescent, the adolescents were instructed
to give it to their parents for safe storage. Printed stickers were given
to each adolescent to affix to the packages and to record information about
the delivery process, such as who received the package, the name of the delivery
company, the date of delivery, and whether proof of age was requested by the
delivery person. Research staff periodically visited each adolescent's home
to retrieve the delivered tobacco products. Staff recorded whether each package
was marked as containing tobacco products, whether the name on the return
address label indicated that it was shipped from a tobacco vendor, whether
the package was marked "Adult signature required for delivery," and whether
it featured a bar code, which could be programmed to include a prompt for
the delivery person to verify the age of the recipient.
Research staff received a written letter guaranteeing immunity from
prosecution from the local district attorney, who has enforcement authority
over North Carolina's law 14-313, "Youth Access to Tobacco Products," which
bans tobacco sales to minors and makes it a crime for adults to aid minors
in purchasing tobacco products. It is also illegal in 20 states for minors
to attempt to purchase tobacco products or to misrepresent their age when
attempting to purchase tobacco products.10 To
avoid having to seek immunity from states with these legal requirements, an
adult staff member consummated the purchase; research staff "officially" submitted
all of the orders by either clicking the final "submit" button for online
orders or by placing the order forms completed by the adolescent in a mailbox.
Finally, the lead author notified the local police chief of the study in case
there were problems with clerks when the adolescents purchased the money orders.
The study protocol received exempt status from the University of North
Carolina School of Public Health Institutional Review Board on the basis that
Internet cigarette vendors are not considered human subjects.
Tobacco sales to minors was the primary outcome variable of the study.
All successful deliveries of tobacco products to the minors' homes were considered
sales. Descriptive statistics were computed for all of the ordering and receipt
The 55 Internet cigarette vendors were located in 12 states. Nearly
a quarter (27.3%) also operated a retail store, and 63.6% were based at Indian
reservations. A warning that buyers need to be at least 18 years of age to
purchase tobacco products was featured on 90.9% of Web sites. Minors made
a total of 83 purchase attempts, 36 using money orders and 47 using credit
cards. In all but 6 cases, they ordered Marlboro. The minimum order was 1
carton for slightly more than half of the purchase attempts, with a range
of 1 to 5 cartons.
Internet cigarette vendors sold to minors in 76 (91.6%) of the 83 purchase
attempts. Fifty of the 55 Internet vendors sold cigarettes to minors. Successful
purchases occurred in 32 (88.9%) of 36 money order purchase attempts and 44
(93.6%) of 47 credit card purchase attempts. Altogether, the Internet vendors
sold a total of 1650 packs of cigarettes to the 4 minors. Eight vendors for
the money order purchases and 1 vendor for the credit card purchases stated
on their Web site that buyers must mail or fax a copy of their photo ID; however,
only 3 of the money order purchases (8.3%) and 1 credit card purchase (2.1%)
were refused because the buyer did not provide proof of age. For 1 of the
money orders and 1 of the credit card attempts, the vendor never shipped the
cigarettes. Despite numerous e-mail and telephone queries, the money was never
refunded, and it appears that both of these Internet vendors went out of business
because their Web sites became inactive. Finally, 1 credit card purchase was
unsuccessful because of technical difficulties; the vendor could not process
the order even though the credit card number was submitted 3 times.
The age of the recipient was never verified in any of the 76 successful
deliveries. Of the packages that were received, 96.9% of money order packages
and 77.3% of credit card packages were left on the recipient's doorstep without
any contact with the recipient (Table 1). No money order packages and 4 credit card packages were received
from the delivery person by adolescents and 1 money order package and 6 credit
card packages were received by a parent. All but 2 packages were shipped by
either the United Parcel Service (UPS) or the US Postal Service. One package
was shipped by Federal Express; another shipped by an unknown courier arrived
from the British Virgin Islands with a US Customs label on the outside of
the package. This package was the only one that was clearly labeled as containing
tobacco products because a description of the package contents was required
on the US Customs shipping label. Only 1 package was labeled "Adult signature
required for delivery," but because this package was received by a parent,
we were unable to determine whether the delivery person would have actually
verified age if the adolescent had received it. Based on the return address
labels, it was only clear that 7 packages came from a tobacco vendor. Finally,
bar codes were featured on 96.9% of money order packages and 93.2% of credit
Some vendors included complimentary packs of cigarettes or individual
cigarette samples with the adolescents' orders. One vendor sent 6 free cartons
of cigarettes to 2 different adolescents. These unsolicited cartons arrived
several weeks after the original order without any explanation or request
for payment. Many vendors included free promotional items, such as pens, ashtrays,
or lighters that featured the vendor's logo and contact information. Others
included business cards with contact and ordering information, which customers
could distribute to their friends.
In the present study, approximately 90% of Internet vendors sold cigarettes
to minors. These high rates of Internet cigarette sales to minors are reminiscent
of rates observed at retail outlets more than a decade ago, when there was
little enforcement of adolescent access laws.11,12 To
prevent tobacco sales to minors, many retailers have implemented clerk training
programs and installed devices to verify the age of potential buyers. Nevertheless,
many Internet cigarette vendors appear to have weak or nonexistent age verification
procedures. In fact, 65 of 76 packages containing cigarettes were simply left
at the door without any age verification at the point of delivery. Although
the majority of the Internet cigarette vendors posted an age warning on their
Web site, there was no age verification for any of the deliveries.
To our knowledge, this is the first scientific study to document Internet
cigarette sales to minors; however, there have been several anecdotal reports
that minors can purchase cigarettes online. The New York City Department of
Consumer Affairs reported that in 23 of 24 purchase attempts, Internet vendors
sold to minors aged 7 to 17 years.13 Two teens
aged 15 and 16 years working with the Plymouth, Minn, Police Department placed
10 orders for cigarettes from 5 Internet vendors.14 All
10 orders were accepted by the vendors without checking the buyers' ages,
and 8 of the 10 packages of cigarettes were then delivered without age verification
(for the remaining 2 orders, an adult signature was required). In a California
study,15 4 adult college students attempted
to purchase cigarettes from Internet vendors without providing proof of age.
Of 28 orders received by an Internet vendor, 20 were ultimately filled (4
were returned because they lacked proof of age and 4 were rejected for other
reasons such as not meeting minimum purchase requirements).
Some Internet vendors claim that they will verify the buyer's age via
their credit card. Even though the true ages of 3 of the minors were provided
when applying for the credit card used in this study, no vendor refused a
sale on the basis that the buyers were underage according to their credit
card information. The rate of sales to minors was slightly higher when the
minor purchased with a prepaid credit card than with a money order. Visa even
recently issued a statement that requiring credit cards for age-restricted
products, such as cigarettes, is not an adequate safeguard.16
Several efforts to regulate Internet and mail order tobacco sales at
the federal level have been attempted since 1995, but without success.17 The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) claimed
authority over Internet and mail order tobacco sales18;
however, FDA authority on tobacco products was overturned by the US Supreme
Court in March 2000. Bills banning Internet tobacco sales to minors have been
introduced in 1999 (HR 2914), 2001 (HR 3456), and 2002 (HR 5724 and S 3035).
Although Congress held first-ever hearings on the issue of Internet cigarette
sales on May 1, 2003, to date, none of these bills has passed.19
There are state laws that specifically ban Internet and mail order deliveries
of cigarettes to minors in California, Idaho, Maine, Nevada, and Rhode Island.20 Laws in Alaska and New York ban Internet and mail
order shipments of cigarettes to consumers.20 Sante
Fe Tobacco Company and Brown and Williamson sued New York State and argued
that its state law was unconstitutional. Although the tobacco companies prevailed
at the lower court, the law is now in effect because it was upheld at the
appellate court level.21 New York, however,
has recently met resistance from tribal sellers who claim exemption from the
law because of sovereignty.22,23 Given
that nearly 60% of Internet cigarette vendors are located on Indian reservations,8 this will presents challenges. Nevertheless, the courts
have generally confirmed that the federal government has the authority to
regulate Native American tribes. Moreover, Alaska prohibits common carriers
from shipping cigarettes to consumers—a policy that directly affects
tribal and nontribal sellers alike. In addition, several state attorneys general
have attempted to enforce existing minor access and consumer protection laws
to crack down on online tobacco sales to minors.24,25
This study had several limitations. Minors completed all order forms
but did not actually consummate the orders because of legal concerns. However,
having a minor instead of an adult staff member click the "submit" button
for the online order or place the mail order envelope in the mailbox would
probably not have altered the findings. Minors were not always present to
receive the deliveries. This is unlikely to influence the findings, given
that most packages were left at the door. Another limitation is that adolescents
who attempt to purchase cigarettes online for their own consumption may face
several additional barriers to purchasing, such as parental detection of purchase
and delivery and the large cash outlay required to purchase multiple cartons.17 A final limitation is that minors purchased from
55 Internet cigarette vendors whose sales practices might not be generalizable
to the broader population of Internet cigarette vendors.
Future studies should monitor whether minors are turning to the Internet
to purchase cigarettes as retail availability becomes more restricted. New
methods of verifying the age of consumers need to be identified and tested
for effective prevention of online tobacco sales to minors. Programs will
be needed to educate Internet cigarette vendors about state laws related to
sales to minors. Finally, federal legislation banning Internet and mail order
tobacco sales to minors may be the most effective policy strategy.
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