Dec. 10 2001
Washington, DC — A new study published today in the journal Tobacco Control should serve as a wakeup call for Congress to curtail the alarming growth of cigarette sales over the Internet and prevent the worldwide web from becoming the next effective tool for the tobacco industry to addict our kids. The best solution is for Congress to ban cigarette sales over the Internet entirely. Until it takes such action, Congress should enact the legislation introduced today by U.S. Rep. Martin Meehan (D-MA), which would require Internet retailers to, among other things, verify the age of their customers using government identification checked against related databases. The bill also requires signature and age-verification upon delivery.
The study, which was conducted from November 1999 to January 2000 by researchers at University of North Carolina, found at that time that there were already at least 88 Internet cigarette vendors located in 23 states. Current internet search engines show more than 200 Internet cigarette vendors, indicating that the number of such vendors has more than doubled in just the last two years. According to the April 2001 Tobacco Reporter magazine, a tobacco industry trade journal, internet sales are expected to reach $10 billion a year, or about 20% of the total U.S. market within the next five years.
This exponential growth in Internet tobacco sales threatens to undermine public health efforts to reduce the death and disease caused by tobacco use, by making it cheaper and easier for kids to buy cigarettes. Typically, Internet tobacco retailers fail to verify the age of their customers, undermine efforts to reduce cigarette consumption through excise tax increases because the sellers rarely collect the state cigarette excise tax; and increase youth exposure to tobacco advertising and marketing.
Among other problems, today's study finds that only 28.4 percent of Internet cigarette sites featured the U.S. Surgeon General's health warning and more than 18 percent did not even provide any notice that sales to persons under age 18 are illegal. The study also indicates that Internet sites are woefully lacking in safeguards to prevent sales to minors, with vendors accepting a wide range of payments, including credit cards, personal checks and ATM cards, that are easily available to youth, and using delivery services, such as the U.S. Postal Service, that do not require age verification at delivery. It is also troubling that the Internet cigarette vendors and sites to which they link serve as a veritable Smoking 101 for children seeking to experiment with cigarettes. According to the study, one site went as far as putting up a section entitled "A smokers guide to cool ways to smoke."
Every day in this country, 5,000 kids try cigarettes for the first time. More than 2,000 become regular smokers, one-third of whom will die prematurely as a result. Banning, or at the very least severely restricting, cigarette sales over the Internet is a critical part of protecting our kids. Congress should take swift, strong and effective action to do so.