Cigarette smoking is known to be the single most preventable cause of premature death in the U.S. today. It kills more Americans than alcohol, car accidents, suicide, homicide, AIDS, and illegal drugs. Despite these alarming statistics, the American Cancer Society (ACS) states that almost 3,000 adolescents start smoking every day, and virtually all adult smokers began smoking by the time they were 19.

Over the past decade, programs like “We Card,” sponsored by the Coalition for Responsible Tobacco Retailing has helped reduce the ease with which adolescents purchase tobacco in retail stores. However, with the rising popularity of shopping online, has come the ability for Americans, adults and adolescents alike, to purchase their cigarettes over the Internet. This trend caused enough concern in one group of researchers that they set out to determine the number of Internet cigarette vendors that would sell cigarettes to minors.

The results of their study, which were published in the September 10, 2003 issue of the Journal of the Americal Medical Association, finds that minors do indeed have easy access to cigarettes via the Internet because many Internet vendors have weak or nonexistent procedures for verifying the age of their customers.

About the study

The researchers conducted a study in which four adolescents between the ages of 11 and 15, under adult supervision, attempted on 83 occasions to buy cigarettes from 55 Internet sites using either credit cards (47) or a money order (36). Each transaction was supervised by adults and authorized by law enforcement officials. The researchers then recorded the number of Internet sites who sold cigarettes to the minors.

The findings

As many as 50 of the 55 Internet sites sold cigarettes to minors. Minors successfully received cigarettes for 44 (93.6%) of the credit card transactions and for 32 (88.9%) of the money order transactions. The age of the purchaser was never verified for any of these deliveries. In total, the Internet sites sold 1650 packs of cigarettes to the underage adolescents in this study.

How does this affect you?

The four children in this study could easily access cigarettes using the Internet. In fact, 90% of the Internet sites in the study sold cigarettes to minors, a rate, which, according to the researchers, is similar to the one at which adolescents used to buy cigarettes from retail stores 10 years ago when the laws regarding tobacco sales to minors were rarely enforced.

Over the years, changes in the behavior of retail store owners (clerk training programs and age verification devices) have made it far more difficult for minors buy to cigarettes in retail stores. Internet cigarette vendors, on the other hand, have weak to nonexistent procedures for verifying the ages of the customers accessing their sites. And while several legislative attempts have been made to regulate Internet tobacco sales, none of these measures has been passed, allowing minors continued easy access to cigarettes via the Internet.

So, what can be done? Clearly, Internet vendors of tobacco products must take responsibility for developing and enforcing age verification procedures on their sites, and those that don’t must be held accountable. In addition, packages containing cigarettes should be labeled as such and only delivered to an adult with appropriate ID at the point of delivery. Parents must be made aware that their children have virtually unlimited access to cigarettes and should not assume that safeguards are in place to protect their children from tobacco products. In a country where 15% of all middle school students report using some form of tobacco, this is a battle we can’t afford to lose.