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Teens attempting to skirt age regulations and buy e-cigarettes online are likely to succeed, despite age restrictions imposed by state authorities, according to the findings of new research that highlights the mounting concerns over the rising popularity of the devices, which may act as a gateway to nicotine addiction.
In a study published this month in the medical journal JAMA Pediatrics, researchers found that the majority of teens in North Carolina who attempted to buy e-cigarettes online were successful in doing so, due to ineffective or nonexistent efforts to screen young buyers by online sellers.
Researchers focused on determining whether teens were able to purchase e-cigarettes online after a 2013 North Carolina law was imposed prohibiting the sale to minors.
The North Carolina Internet Tobacco Vendors cross-sectional study found only five of 80 teen attempts to buy cigarettes were rejected because of age verification. The study resulted in a youth successful buy rate of 93.7%.
Researchers supervised 11 teens between the ages of 14 and 17, as they attempted to buy e-cigarettes online from February 2014 to June 2014. A total of 98 attempts were made, with 18 attempts failing because of broken websites or problems processing payments and only five attempts being rejected due to age verification, where the vendor requested a social security number and date of birth.
Some websites had limited age verification, though most were ineffective, often consisting only of check boxes. None required drivers license numbers at the time of purchase.
The 2013 North Carolina law requires online e-cigarette sellers verify customers ages with a government database at the point of order. It is one of the few states that focus on internet sales, yet none of the on-line companies tested in the study complied with North Carolina’s e-cigarette age verification law.
Minors were also able to successfully receive deliveries of e-cigarettes from 77% of purchases. There were no attempts by delivery companies to verify the ages of recipients at the time of delivery.
In addition, 95% of delivered e-cigarette orders were left at the front door of the delivery address. Vendors in North Carolina shipping e-cigarettes to minors could be charged with a class 2 misdemeanor.
The packages were delivered by the U.S. Postal Service, United Parcel Service Inc, DHL Worldwide Express, or FedEX Corp.
All delivered packages came from vendors that do not ship traditional cigarettes to consumers, either by federal regulation or their own implemented polices. However, no federal regulations exist that restrict e-cigarette shipping.
Researchers say rates of teen e-cigarette use have doubled from 2011 to 2012, and call on federal lawmakers to require and enforce rigorous age verification for all e-cigarette sales.
Currently 41 states have enacted a ban on sales of e-cigarettes to minors. However, most of those sales focus on in-person sales.
In 2013, state attorneys general signed a letter urging the FDA to begin regulation e-cigarettes under federal law, including prohibiting the sale of the devices to minors.
Researchers warn that similar outcomes to the North Carolina study are most likely occurring in other states as well.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has voiced concerns about e-cigarettes, particularly involving the increasing popularity among teens. Despite declining rates of traditional cigarette use, e-cigarette rates continue to spike among youth, a trend many say points to the need for stronger teen restrictions.
The concern regarding teens using e-cigarettes continues to receive high media attention considering more teens are using the devices. To that end, researchers worry e-cigarettes are becoming a gateway tool for teen use of traditional cigarettes.
A 2014 congressional report revealed e-cigarette advertisements are often aimed at teens by using celebrities or selling products with candy-like flavors, two aspects that appeal highly to younger users.