With the emergence of Web sites selling tobacco products, there is concern that they may be selling tobacco products to minors. A 1997 report identified 13 Internet cigarette vendors and found that few asked or attempted to verify the buyer's age.1 Similarly, a study of 108 Internet cigar vendors found that only one third featured minimum age-of-sale warnings.2 The goal of the present study was to examine whether Internet vendors take adequate precautions to avoid selling cigarettes to minors.

Data were collected as part of a larger study on the sales practices of 88 Internet cigarette vendors that is described elsewhere.3 Trained raters examined all pages of each Web site for minimum age-of-sale warnings and age verification and payment methods.

Table 1 shows that 82% of the sites (n = 72) featured one or more age warnings that the buyer must be 18 years or older to purchase cigarettes. Age warnings appeared mostly on the home pages of the Web sites (n = 43); only one third featured a warning on the ordering page. The most common age verification method was self-verification, whereby potential buyers clicked a box stating that they were of legal age to purchase tobacco products (n = 43) or typed in their birthdate (n = 13). Only 8 sites featured the more rigorous age verification method of requiring a driver's license number that could be verified by the vendor. Only 6 Internet cigarette vendors stated that they required photographic age identification at point of delivery, the prevailing standard at retail outlets.

The results of our study suggested that most Internet cigarette vendors use inadequate procedures for age verification. Youths who misrepresent their age and obtain a money order could potentially purchase cigarettes on-line without difficulty. According to the State Youth Tobacco Surveys, 1.0% was the medium percentage of middle school and 1.4% was the medium percentage of high school current smokers who reported purchasing their last pack of cigarettes on the Internet.4 Similar findings were described in a study of California high school students.5

One limitation of this study was that we assessed the specified age verification methods, but these may differ markedly once orders are placed. Some sites may verify age on delivery, even though this information is not explicitly stated on their Web site. Likewise, some sites that mentioned having age verification procedures may not actually impose them.

Substantial efforts have been made to prevent youth access to tobacco products from retail outlets,6–8 including laws requiring in-person photographic age verification at the point of sale.9 However, no federal laws ban the sale of tobacco products to minors through the Internet, and only a few states have attempted regulation. Rhode Island, for instance, banned Internet and mail-order sales of cigarettes without age verification at delivery.10,11 Parent-controlled filtering and blocking software is not a viable solution for restricting youth access to Internet cigarette vendors because most of these programs do not block tobacco sites12 and because none of the sites in this study were registered with parent-controlled access-filtering software sites. The findings of this study, combined with new data showing that youths are beginning to buy cigarettes via the Internet, emphasize the need for the passage and enforcement of policies to restrict youth access to tobacco products through this venue.

TABLE 1 —Presence of Health Warnings and Minimum Age Verification Procedures for Internet Cigarette Vendors (N = 88)
TABLE 1 —Presence of Health Warnings and Minimum Age Verification Procedures for Internet Cigarette Vendors (N = 88)
 No. (%)
No. of age warning(s) 
    016 (18.2)
    130 (34.1)
    219 (21.6)
    3–5 8 (9.1)
    ≥ 615 (17.0)
Location of age warning(s)a 
    Home page43 (59.7)
    Product description page26 (36.1)
    Order form page24 (33.3)
    Both home and order form pages16 (22.2)
    Other page38 (52.8)
Age verification method 
    Self-verification of legal ageb43 (48.9)
    Type in birthdate13 (14.8)
    Type in driver's license number 8 (9.1)
    Provide photographic age identification at delivery 6 (6.8)
    Other verification method 5 (5.7)
    Enter credit card information 1 (1.1)
Site registered with parent-controlled filtering and blocking software 0 (0.0)
Method of payment 
    Credit card80 (90.9)
    Money order or certified check60 (68.2)
    Personal check51 (58.0)
    Automated teller machine card 2 (2.3)
    Other 9 (10.2)

aOf the 72 sites with age warning(s).

bBuyers must check a box on the ordering page that confirms that they are of legal age to purchase cigarettes, or buyers are warned that by submitting the order, they certify that they are of legal age.


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Kurt M. Ribisl, PhD, Annice E. Kim, MPH, and Rebecca S. Williams, MHS The authors are with the Department of Health Behavior and Health Education, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Public Health, Chapel Hill, NC. Kurt M. Ribisl is also with the Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, University of North Carolina School of Medicine. “Are the Sales Practices of Internet Cigarette Vendors Good Enough to Prevent Sales to Minors?”, American Journal of Public Health 92, no. 6 (June 1, 2002): pp. 940-941.


PMID: 12036783