Citizens for Clean Air and Clean Lungs

Easy For Minors to Buy Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Over the Internet

The Boston Herald
Aug 25, 1999
By Darrell S. Pressley

A new survey using Bay State high school students shows how easy it is for minors to buy cigarettes and other tobacco items off the Internet.

The Online Tobacco Sales to Minors Survey found students under 18 were able to buy tobacco products from Marlboro Lights to Bidis by the carton without being asked their age.

"I thought it was very scary, because little kids can do it," said Kelly Sheehan, 17, a senior at Salem High School.

With the help of the high school students volunteering in his office, U.S. Rep. Martin T. Meehan (D-Lowell) yesterday introduced national legislation to attack the online problem.

The Protecting Kids From Internet Tobacco Sales Act gives state attorneys general the power to prosecute people and companies that sell tobacco products over the Internet to those under 18.

Using credit cards, the minors were able to buy cigarettes and have them delivered to their homes, despite laws that prohibit the sale of tobacco to anyone under 18.

Sheehan said she ordered cigarettes online for the study and they came back in about six weeks in brown wrapping -- which means parents may not even know their kids have ordered cigarettes.

Sheehan said she knows of one friend who bought cigarettes from the Web. "He was laughing because he couldn't believe he could do it," she said.

The study also found:

  • 26 sites of stores where cigarettes, cigars, pipe tobacco and snuff are sold over the Internet.
  • Of those sites, only half listed age restrictions, and none of them had the Surgeon General's warning labels.
  • At no time were the minors buying the products asked to provide proof of their age.

"We must act now to protect our children from these online predators before it's too late," said Meehan, who plans to introduce the legislation when Congress returns in September.

"Until we do, every computer with Internet access will be like an unattended cigarette vending machine," he said.

Anti-tobacco activists supported Meehan's proposal.

"We think the proposal will serve as a gatekeeper for an industry that knows no boundaries and continues to shamelessly market to kids," said Lori Fresina, a spokeswoman for the American Cancer Society.

But Jeff Borysiewicz, president of Corona Cigars, based in Orlando, Fla., said the industry doesn't want to sell to minors and it "does a real good job of policing itself."

Borysiewicz said his site includes, among other things, a warning telling customers they must be 18 or over, a "Keeping Cigars Away from Kids" logo, and a request for an age. He also requires that the mailing address given match the credit card address.

According to a Center for Disease Control report, nearly 70 percent of high school students in the Bay State have experimented with cigarettes, and more than 34 percent are regular smokers. And the number of high school smokers is on the rise nationally.

Proposed Legislation To Crack Down On Internet Tobacco Sales To Minors

U.S. Representative Marty Meehan (D-MA) announced that he intends to introduce legislation to stop tobacco sales to minors over the Internet when Congress reconvenes next month. The legislation would prohibit the sale of tobacco products to minors, require online tobacco marketers to comply with the same restrictions that apply to print advertisers, and mandate that web sites selling tobacco display the Surgeon General's warning. At a press conference announcing his bill, Meehan said, "Access to cigarettes thorough sources like the Internet is helping to fuel the increase in youth smoking that's taking place in the 90's. The more that we can restrict kids from easy access to tobacco, the less likely the children will be experimenting."

Over the summer, Meehan conducted an informal study of Internet tobacco sales using student interns to search the web for sites that sell tobacco. His interns found 26 web sites selling tobacco, and only half of them had language regarding age requirements for purchasing tobacco products. None of the sites posted the Surgeon General's warning about smoking.

The Boston Herald, (8/24/99) "Meehan, AG Reilly take steps to zap online tobacco sales", State House News Service
[Full Text:]

TOBACCO ON THE INTERNET-- Massachusetts Congressman Marty Meehan has announced he will file legislation to address Internet tobacco sales to minors. After a constituent called to complain about the sale of cigarettes to kids over the Internet, Meehan asked high school students working for him to investigate. The students found 26 Internet sites selling tobacco, only half of which contained language regarding age requirements for purchasing tobacco. The students demonstrated how easy it was to purchase tobacco over the Internet at the press conference announcing the legislation.

As cigarette marketers are constrained from more traditional forms of advertising, promotions and sales, they will be looking harder for alternative mechanisms. In March 1997, the Center for Media Education published a study entitled "Alcohol and Tobacco on the Web: New Threats to Youth." The report noted that both alcohol and tobacco companies use the web to advertise and promote their products. In many cases, the companies exploit the web's unique interactive properties that young people find so attractive. The report notes that hundreds of sites offer alcohol and tobacco products for sale, and even if sellers ask a buyer their age, there is no mechanism for verifying the answer.

Advocates need to be vigilant in monitoring the industry's new tactics. It is noteworthy that a constituent's call spurred Congressman Meehan's interest in the issue. More such interested constituents can help us make progress!

Note: "Alcohol and Tobacco on the Web: New Threats to Youth" is available from the Center for Media Education, 2120 L St. NW, Suite 200, Washington DC 20037. Phone: 202-331-7833; Fax: 202-331-7841; or on the World Wide Web at

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