For minors, getting a hold of cigarettes may be as easy as logging onto the Internet.
A recent study showed that when four adolescents ages 11 to 15 attempted to purchase cigarettes through Internet vendors, they were successful 90 percent of the time.
The study, conducted by Kurt M. Ribisl and published with the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that minors could easily purchase cigarettes using either credit cards or money-order forms.
Most of the vendors posted an age warning on their site, but the age of the recipient was never verified in any of the deliveries, researchers said. In most cases the packages were either left at the door or handed directly to the minor.
Customers verified their age through the order form by entering “YES” when asked if they were older than 18 years old. If the Web site required the minor to type in their birth date or drivers license number, a fake one was used. Only four of the 55 vendors used in the study refused the sale, researchers said.
The minors were able to purchase a total of 1,640 packages of cigarettes on the Internet.
Weeks later, the minors used in the study received complimentary samples of cigarettes from the Internet vendors as well as lighters and ash trays containing the company logo and contact information. Some also received ordering information to share with their friends.
“I can’t say I’m surprised about it,” said Gwen Sieving, a health educator at Hartshorn Health Service. “I’m not surprised at anything the tobacco companies will do to increase their business.”
Some sites claim that the use of credit cards is a safeguard against selling cigarettes to minors because credit cards are usually only issued to people who are over 18 years of age.
However, credit card companies often times provide gift cards marketed toward teenagers. These gift cards are purchased by adults and given to minors, who can use them as a credit card anywhere the company is accepted.
Banks also allow minors to apply for checking accounts, which with a parent’s consent, provides a debit card that can be used as a credit card.
In Colorado, almost one in five current high school smokers under the age of 18 reported buying their last package of cigarettes themselves, according to a Colorado Department of Health and Environment 2001 Youth Tobacco Survey.
David Torfin, a senior political science major, remembers trying to buy cigarettes as a teen-ager.
“I would go to a gas station and hope they wouldn’t ID me; sometimes it worked,” he said.
Torfin believes that buying cigarettes online would take too much effort for a minor and asking an older friend to buy them would be easier.
Katie MacFarlane, a first-year graduate student studying food science and nutrition, remembers her friends getting cigarettes the same way when she was in high school.
“They’d go to the front of the store to see if someone would buy it for them,” she said. “Or they’d bum a cigarette off other people.”
Gas stations and convenience stores are cracking down on the sale of cigarettes to minors because if a store is caught selling cigarettes to a minor, it has to pay a hefty fine, Sieving said.
“Stores are becoming stricter because they don’t want that fine,” Sieving said.
According to a Prudential Securities Report, by the year 2005, tobacco sales on the Internet will account for 14 percent of the total U.S. market.
Currently, there are no federal regulations that specifically ban the sale of cigarettes to minors over the Internet.
Zach Biskup, a junior political science major, is not surprised that cigarettes are sold online.
“You can get anything on the Internet, they might as well sell cigarettes too,” he said.