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Member Research & Reports

Member Research & Reports

UNC Study Finds Few Online E-Cigarette Vendors Block Sales to Minors

A study led by researchers at UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center and the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health has found that teens can buy electronic cigarettes easily online, despite a North Carolina law banning their purchase by minors and requiring online vendors to verify customer age.

ribisl_kurt_by b.strickland
[Photo: Dr. Kurt Ribisl]

This first-of-its-kind, National Cancer Institute-funded study was published online March 2 in The Journal of the American Medical Association Pediatrics. It found that only five of 98 attempts by teens to buy e-cigarettes online were blocked by online vendors’ attempts to verify customer age.

Dr. Rebecca S. Williams, a member of the UNC Lineberger center, is the study’s principal investigator. Dr. Kurt M. Ribisl, professor of health behavior at the Gillings School, UNC Lineberger’s Cancer Prevention and Control program leader and a national expert in tobacco control policy issues on the Internet, and Mr. Jason Derrick, of UNC Lineberger, are study co-authors.

“Very few online vendors even gave the appearance of trying to comply with North Carolina’s e-cigarette age verification law,” Dr. Williams said.

The findings underscore the need for federal regulations requiring and enforcing age verification in the sale of e-cigarettes, Dr. Williams states, as their use among teens has been growing, and there isn’t yet conclusive research showing their public health and safety impacts.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has described a doubling in the rate of teens who reported ever using e-cigarettes from 2011 to 2012. A national survey released in 2014 also showed that more than 17.1 percent of 12th graders reported they used an e-cigarette in the past 30 days.

In the study led by Dr. Williams, researchers recruited a group of teens to buy nicotine e-cigarettes from 98 Web-based vendors. Only five purchase attempts were rejected based on age verification strategies. Another 18 attempts failed, but for reasons unrelated to age verification such as flawed website functionality. After removing those 18 order attempts from the study sample, there were five out of 80 orders rejected based on age verification, i.e., a youth e-cigarette purchase success rate of 93.7 percent.

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