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Cigarette sales to minors via the internet: how the story has changed in the wake of federal regulation
  1. Rebecca S Williams1,2,
  2. Jason Derrick1,
  3. K Jean Phillips1
  1. 1Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
  2. 2Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Rebecca S Williams, Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina, CB 7424, Chapel Hill, NC 27599, USA; rebeccawilliams{at}


Objective To assess how easily minors can purchase cigarettes online and online cigarette vendors’ compliance with federal age/ID verification and shipping regulations, North Carolina's 2013 tobacco age verification law, and federal prohibitions on the sale of non-menthol flavoured cigarettes or those labelled or advertised as ‘light’.

Methods In early 2014, 10 minors aged 14–17 attempted to purchase cigarettes by credit card and electronic check from 68 popular internet vendors.

Results Minors received cigarettes from 32.4% of purchase attempts, all delivered by the US Postal Service (USPS) from overseas sellers. None failed due to age/ID verification. All failures were due to payment processing problems. USPS left 63.6% of delivered orders at the door with the remainder handed to minors with no age verification. 70.6% of vendors advertised light cigarettes and 60.3% flavoured, with 23.5% and 11.8%, respectively, delivered to the teens. Study credit cards were exposed to an estimated $7000 of fraudulent charges.

Conclusions Despite years of regulations restricting internet cigarette sales, poor vendor compliance and lack of shipper and federal enforcement leaves minors still able to obtain cigarettes (including ‘light’ and flavoured) online. The internet cigarette marketplace has shifted overseas, exposing buyers to widespread credit card fraud. Federal agencies should rigorously enforce existing internet cigarette sales laws to prevent illegal shipments from reaching US consumers, shut down non-compliant and fraudulent websites, and stop the theft and fraudulent use of credit card information provided online. Future studies should assess whether these agencies begin adequately enforcing the existing laws.

  • Illegal tobacco products
  • Priority/special populations
  • Public policy
  • Surveillance and monitoring

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