Internet Sales to Youth – 10/4/07
Q: Rhode Island is currently exploring the use of the internet/phone orders by youth to get cigarettes. Have any other states conducted any "sting operations" on internet sales to youth? Can they share what they did/procedures/operation etc.? Any assistance would be great.
- California: California law (Business and Professions Code 22952(c)) authorizes the Department of Public Health to conduct investigations of sales by telephone, mail, or Internet.
22952 (c) Provide that primary responsibility for enforcement of this division shall be with the state department. In carrying out its enforcement responsibilities, the state department shall conduct random, onsite sting inspections at retail sites and shall enlist the assistance of persons that are 15 and 16 years of age in conducting these enforcement activities. The state department may conduct onsite sting inspections in response to public complaints or at retail sites where violations have previously occurred, and investigate illegal sales of tobacco products to minors by telephone, mail, or the Internet. Participation in these enforcement activities by a person under 18 years of age shall not constitute a violation of subdivision (b) of Section 308 of the Penal Code for the person under 18 years of age, and the person under 18 years of age is immune from prosecution thereunder, or under any other provision of law prohibiting the purchase of these products by a person under 18 years of age.
Our Food and Drug Branch (FDB) conducts the stings, but has only conducted them at retail, brick and mortar sites. FDB does not have enough resources to investigate the other avenues that youth can purchase tobacco products illegally, and the larger problem is youth purchasing at physical locations. The author of the legislation that passed in California in 2002 (and that was based on Rhode Island’s youth Internet law) documented where minors have been able to purchase online. I don’t have the news article, but it was either at a press conference or at the bill’s hearing where they showed that one of his staffer’s children (a 5-year old) was able to order cigarettes online (not sure if they were actually delivered). I have also attached the Tobacco-Free Kids statement about a JAMA study from September 2003 that showed youth could easily purchase cigarettes online and that little was done to check age at time of purchase or delivery.
So, it is proven in a quasi-laboratory setting that minors can purchase and have cigarettes delivered from online sources. But the question for Rhode Island and other states is does this happen in the real world. Youth for the most part do not purchase their own cigarettes. Our own unpublished 2005 data show when adolescents’ are asked where their usual source of cigarettes comes from: nearly 62% say someone gives them cigarettes; 23% say that someone buys them cigarettes; 7% take them; and 7% buy them on their own. So, most youth do not purchase their own cigarettes. Of course, the % of youth that buy their own cigarettes increases as they become established smokers, but it still does not get above 20%. Finally, only one youth in our surveys has ever stated that they purchased their cigarettes over the Internet. This is compared to the latest available data on our statewide youth tobacco purchase survey that indicted that 13.2 % of traditional retailers sold to youth in 2006. Local surveys generally indicate much higher tobacco sales rates.
In fact, only 0.7 percent of adult California smokers claim to purchase online.
In summary, states need to look at their data to determine if the resources for Internet stings are warranted, against using those resources to conduct stings on sales in traditional, retail settings. Having said that, Rhode Island is far more proximal to Internet cigarette houses on the East Coast that could be more heavily advertised in that market. But, any Google search performed by a youth living anywhere in the U.S. will probably list a hundred or more online cigarette vendors.
- Massachusetts: Massachusetts did internet stings in cooperation with our Attorney General's Office. I'm glad to share information with Rhode Island or anyone else interested.
- North Carolina: Our research team at UNC published the first study documenting whether minors could purchase cigarettes online (yes, more than 90% of the time). I have attached a copy of our study, which includes the protocol that we employed. I've also included an article on kids buying cigarettes online (several other studies have been published since then).
Our study was a purchase survey and not law enforcement operation. I have worked with several states that have conducted "sting operations" - such as California and New York. The Attorneys General are good resources if you want to perform active enforcement of Rhode Island's law. We are happy to help if your contact has questions. See attached: