Research finds Internet cigarette sales present potential threat to public health

December 10, 2001

(Embargoed) CHAPEL HILL - Using the five most popular computer search engines to scour the Internet, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill researchers have found that cigarette vendors are easy to locate online. They worry that children who cannot purchase tobacco products in stores will go online to buy products damaging to their health.

The researchers, led by Dr. Kurt M. Ribisl, assistant professor of Health Behavior and Health Education at the UNC School of Public Health, identified 88 vendors in 23 states. Nearly half -- 43 -- were located in New York State, and many were in tobacco-producing states with low cigarette excise taxes. Indian reservations housed 49 of the 88 sites.

Only 28.4 percent carried U.S. Surgeon General health warnings that are required by law to appear on all cigarette packages and advertisements. Almost 20 percent failed to warn minors of minimum age requirements.

A report on the study appears in the December issue of Tobacco Control, a public health journal published by the British Medical Journal. Co-authors are UNC graduate students Annice E. Kim and Rebecca S. Williams.

"Nearly all sites -- 96.6 percent -- sold premium or value brand cigarettes, such as Marlboro, which is the leading brand among youth, and 21.6 percent sold duty-free Marlboros which are now banned under the Master Settlement Agreement," Ribisl said. "About one in five offered standing orders that allow the buyer to receive regular shipments of cigarettes each month."

Internet cigarette vendors present new regulatory and enforcement challenges for tobacco control advocates because of the difficulty in regulating Internet content, he said. Many vendors are on Indian reservations and regulating sales there also present complications because they claim sovereignty and are less regulated by states and the federal government.

Conducted in January, 2000, the study involved extensive Web surfing by typing such phrases as "cheap cigarettes" and "discount cigarettes" into the top 5 Internet search engines. Ribisl and his students then reviewed more than 1,800 Web sites to identify the 88 Internet cigarette vendors operating in the United States.

The researchers said that the number of sites selling cigarettes over the Internet has probably increased since they completed the study, and they are planning a follow-up project to track growth in the number of such vendors.

A second study appearing in the same issue, co-written by Drs. Jennifer B. Unger and Louise Ann Rohrbach of the University of Southern California and Ribisl, involved surveying more than 17,000 10th and 12th grade California students about their attempts to buy cigarettes on the Internet.

That study found 2.2 percent of the adolescents asked had tried. Most of those were younger students, males, frequent smokers and teens who found it hard to get tobacco products elsewhere.

Younger adolescents may turn to the Internet to buy cigarettes since they can more easily hide the fact that they are underage, the authors wrote. More monitoring and regulation are needed to prevent the Internet from increasing as a source of tobacco for underage adolescents.

Currently no federal laws make it illegal for Web sites to sell tobacco products to children.

"Congress needs to pass legislation making it illegal to sell cigarettes to children through the Internet," Ribisl said. "A few states ban Internet tobacco sales to minors, but given that Internet vendors are already located in half the states, federal legislation is clearly needed."

Rhode Island, for example, bans Internet and mail order sales of tobacco products without age verification at delivery, and violators can be fined up to $1,000.

Cigarette smoking is the nation's leading cause of premature sickness and death, Ribisl added. More than 47 million adults and 4 million teen-agers smoke. Annual sales of tobacco products top $40 billion.
-end-
Note: Ribisl can be reached at 919-843-8042 or kurt_ribisl@unc.edu. He will check his voice mail every few hours on Sunday. Unger can be reached at unger@hsc.usc.edu 626-457-4052. School of Public Health Contact: Lisa Katz, 919-966-7467 News Services Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596

Note to editors: On Dec. 10, Congressman Martin Meehan of Massachusetts is expected to introduce "The Tobacco-Free Internet for Kids Act." If passed, the legislation will prohibit the sale of tobacco products through the Internet to people under age 18.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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