Public Release: 

UNC study shows Internet offers youths easy way to buy cigarettes

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

CHAPEL HILL -- Children and adolescents can buy cigarettes easily through the Internet since cigarette venders have weak or nonexistent age verification methods, a new University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill study concludes. Retail tobacco sales to minors are against the law in all 50 states.

The study is the first scientific investigation to document Internet cigarette sales to minors, researchers say. Reported in the Sept. 10 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, the project involved having four youths, aged 11 to 15 and under adult supervision, try to buy cigarettes from 55 Internet cigarette vendors.

"Our four volunteers made 83 purchase attempts, paying by credit card 47 times and by money order 36 times," said Dr. Kurt M. Ribisl assistant professor of health behavior and health education at the UNC School of Public Health. "We found the kids successfully received cigarettes for 93.6 percent of credit card purchase attempts and 88.9 percent of money order purchase attempts.

"Age was never verified for any of these deliveries," said Ribisl, also a member of the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center. "Internet vendors sent a total of 1,650 packs of cigarettes to the underage youth in our study."

Co-authors of the JAMA report are public health doctoral students Rebecca S. Williams and Annice E. Kim. Money to buy the cigarettes was donated privately to the group.

Ribisl said it surprised him that more than 90 percent of the Internet vendors warned potential customers that they needed to be at least 18 years old to purchase cigarettes, yet more than 90 percent of the vendors sold cigarettes to the children anyway.

"More than a quarter of cigarette vendors also operated a retail store, and almost two-thirds were on Indian reservations," he said.

Some vendors required buyers to mail or fax a copy of their photo ID, but only three of the money order and one of the credit card purchases were refused when the minors did not produce IDs.

None of the Internet vendors verified the age of the 11- to 15-year-olds when the cigarettes were delivered to their homes. In nearly 97 percent of orders paid by money order and 77 percent of those paid by credit card, packages were simply left at the recipients' doors, Ribisl said.

"Pornography Web sites probably do a better job of verifying the age of their customers than Web sites selling cigarettes," he said.

The U.S. Postal Service or the United Parcel Service shipped most orders, but one came from Federal Express and an unknown company delivered a package from the British Virgin Islands.

Only one package was clearly labeled as tobacco products, only one was marked "Adult signature required for delivery" and only seven showed a return address indicating a tobacco vendor. Some sent complimentary cigarettes and promotional items such as pens and lighters, and one sent six free cartons of cigarettes to two different youth volunteers.

"Although it is against the law for stores to sell cigarettes to minors in every state in America, there is currently no federal law that bans Internet and mail order cigarette sales to minors," Ribisl said. "Thus, none of the Web sites in this study was breaking any federal laws by selling to children, although at least six states prohibit it. Congress has been considering legislation to ban cigarette sales to minors for more than four years. This study clearly shows that Internet cigarette vendors are not adequately verifying the age of their customers and that federal action is urgently needed."

The four volunteers, two boys and two girls using fake names but their real addresses for the study, and the researchers had a letter guaranteeing immunity from prosecution written by Orange County, N.C., District Attorney Carl Fox. To avoid possible legal complications with other states, adults pressed the "submit" buttons for online orders and dropped written orders in the mail themselves.

The minors ordered Marlboros, the most popular brand among underage smokers, unless they were not available, in which case volunteers ordered the cheapest brands.

"The Internet vendors were located in 12 states, and these high rates of Internet cigarette sales to minors are reminiscent of rates observed in compliance checks at retail outlets more than a decade ago when there was little enforcement of youth access laws," Ribisl wrote. "New methods of verifying the age of consumers need to be identified and tested for effective prevention of online tobacco sales to minors."

A separate study Ribisl led, funded by the Substance Abuse Policy Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, identified 353 Internet cigarette vendors in January 2003, he said. U.S. Internet tobacco sales will exceed $5 billion in 2005, according to a recent estimate by Forrester Research.

Cigarette smoking is the nation's leading cause of premature sickness and death, Ribisl said. More than 47 million adults and 4 million teen-agers smoke. Annual sales of tobacco products top $40 billion.


UNC News Services

The UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the Michael and Laura Brader-Araje Foundation supported the new study of Internet cigarette sales to minors.

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Note: Ribisl can be reached at 919-843-8042 or

School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, 919-966-7467

News Services Contact: David Williamson, 919-962-8596

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