Although few youth are currently buying cigarettes online, their numbers are rising. As access to cigarettes becomes more restricted at retail stores, more teens may attempt to buy cigarettes online.
Several studies have found that a growing number of youth are purchasing cigarettes online. A study conducted in 1999-2000 found that among current smokers under 18 years of age (n=1,689), 2 percent reported attempting to purchase cigarettes online (Unger, 2001). Those who attempted purchases were younger, smoked more frequently, and reported greater perceived difficulty in obtaining cigarettes from commercial and social sources. In the 2001 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, more than 3 percent of teenage smokers ages 12-17 reported buying cigarettes from the Internet in the previous 30 days (SAMSHA, 2002).
A 2001 study of 1,323 ninth grade smokers in three Western New York counties found that more than 2 percent reported ever having purchased cigarettes online, and nearly 9 percent intended to purchase cigarettes online in the next year (Abrams, 2003). Youth who had been refused cigarette sales at retail outlets in the previous month were more than three times more likely to purchase cigarettes online than youth who had successfully purchased cigarettes at a retail outlet in the past month. In a follow-up survey in 2005, the percent of ninth grade smokers reporting ever having purchased cigarettes online had risen to more than 6 percent, with more than 5 percent having purchased online in the past 30 days. Youth smokers were 2.6 times more likely to report having purchased cigarettes online in the previous 30 days in 2005 than in 2001 (Fix, 2006).
Although few teens are currently buying cigarettes on the Internet, the rates are increasing, especially among youth who perceive greater difficulty in obtaining cigarettes from retail outlets. As youth access to cigarettes at retail stores is increasingly restricted, the Internet, with its lax age-verification offers an easy, low-cost option for youth interested in obtaining cigarettes. And since the evidence shows that youth are buying cigarettes online, there is clearly a need for better regulation of payment for and shipping of cigarettes for online sales, and the absence of federal legislation makes this issue problematic.