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E-commerce licensing loopholes: a case study of online shopping for tobacco products following a statewide sales restriction on flavoured tobacco in California
  1. Eric C Leas1,
  2. Tomas Mejorado1,
  3. Raquel Harati1,
  4. Shannon Ellis2,3,
  5. Nora Satybaldiyeva1,
  6. Nicolas Morales1,
  7. Adam Poliak4
  1. 1Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health, UC San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA
  2. 2Department of Cognitive Science, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA
  3. 3Halıcıoğlu Data Science Institute, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California, USA
  4. 4Department of Computer Science, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, USA
  1. Correspondence to Dr Eric C Leas, Herbert Wertheim School of Public Health, UC San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093, USA; ecleas{at}


Introduction Retailer licensing programmes can be an effective method of enforcing tobacco control laws, but most programmes do not require e-commerce retailers to obtain licenses. California’s implementation of a statewide flavour restriction (Senate Bill 793 (SB-793)) in December 2022 enforced through its tobacco retailer licensing programme presented an opportunity to assess whether the exclusion of e-commerce in the definition of ‘tobacco retailer’ might have resulted in a shift in consumer behaviour towards e-commerce.

Methods To examine the association between SB-793 implementation and online shopping for tobacco, we collected weekly Google search rates related to online shopping for cigarettes and vaping products in California from January 2018 to May 2023. We compared observed rates of shopping queries after SB-793 implementation to counterfactual expected rates and prediction intervals (PI) calculated from autoregressive iterative moving average models fit to historical trends. Content analysis was performed on the search results to identify websites marketing flavoured vaping products and menthol cigarettes.

Results The week SB-793 was implemented, shopping queries were 194.4% (95% PI 100.8% to 451.5%) and 161.7% (95% PI 81.7% to 367.5%) higher than expected for cigarettes and vapes, respectively. Cigarette shopping queries remained elevated significantly for 11 weeks and vape shopping queries for 6 weeks. All search results contained links to websites that offered flavoured vaping products or menthol cigarettes to Californian consumers.

Discussion These findings raise concerns about potential loopholes in policy enforcement created by the absence of explicit regulations on e-commerce sales in retailer licensing programmes. Strengthening regulations to include e-commerce and monitoring e-commerce compliance are recommended to enhance the impact of laws enforced through retailer licensing programmes.

  • public policy
  • surveillance and monitoring
  • tobacco industry

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  • Contributors Concept and design: ECL. Acquisition, analysis or interpretation of data: all authors. Drafting of the manuscript: ECL. Critical revision of the manuscript for important intellectual content: all authors. Statistical analysis: ECL. Obtained funding: ECL. Administrative, technical or material support: ECL, AP, SE. Supervision: ECL.

  • Funding The work is funded by grant T32IP4684 from the Tobacco Related Disease Research Programme.

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.

  • Supplemental material This content has been supplied by the author(s). It has not been vetted by BMJ Publishing Group Limited (BMJ) and may not have been peer-reviewed. Any opinions or recommendations discussed are solely those of the author(s) and are not endorsed by BMJ. BMJ disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on the content. Where the content includes any translated material, BMJ does not warrant the accuracy and reliability of the translations (including but not limited to local regulations, clinical guidelines, terminology, drug names and drug dosages), and is not responsible for any error and/or omissions arising from translation and adaptation or otherwise.