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Internet Cigarette Vendors Fail to Buyers' Ages, Study Finds

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Sep. 10--CHAPEL HILL, N.C.--It's easy for underage teenagers to buy cigarettes over the Internet using credit cards or money orders because almost none of the vendors verifies buyers' ages, a UNC-Chapel Hill researcher reported Tuesday.

Standing beside a pile of more than 1,500 packs of Marlboro cigarettes bought by children as young as 11, Kurt M. Ribisl , an assistant professor at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Public Health, announced the results of a study that exposed an electronic pipeline of smokes to minors.

The results are in today's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Four Orange County teens in Ribisl's study made 83 attempts to buy cigarettes and succeeded in 76 instances -- almost 92 percent of the time.

Most of the vendors warned on their Web pages that they would not sell to minors, but only four blocked sales when the teens failed to provide a copy of a driver's license showing that they were 18 or older. Eighteen is the legal age to buy cigarettes in most states, including North Carolina.

"We need to have an [age] verification system for the Internet," Ribisl said, noting that there is no federal law specifically banning Internet cigarette sales to minors. North Carolina's law does not specifically mention the Internet in its proscriptions against sales to minors.

Ribisl said other rules are lacking on the delivery end. In all but one instance in the study, the packages of cigarettes were simply dropped off at the teens' homes by mail or a delivery service, with no label identifying the contents as tobacco products.

Ribisl called for such labeling, along with a requirement that an adult sign for delivery. "Our biggest surprise was that the cigarettes were just left at the door," he said.

Health officials are particularly concerned about keeping teenagers from smoking cigarettes because of its long-term consequences. A study released separately this week by researchers at Duke University Medical Center found that adolescent rats given unlimited access to nicotine self-administered the drug at twice the rate as adult rats.

"And they continued to self-administer over a longer period, even as they became adults," said Edward Levin, a professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Duke and one of the authors of a study published in this week's journal of Psychopharmacology.

The Duke research reinforces the need to keep cigarettes away from teens, Levin said, because 88 percent of smokers in the United States took their first puff before age 18, and 60 percent started before age 14.

One of the youths who participated in Ribisl's study, a girl named Carla who was 11 when she was enlisted to make the purchases, said she was surprised at how easy it was to buy smokes.

"I clicked the button and aged seven years," she said of ordering the cigarettes online.

The children who worked with Ribisl were carefully screened and participated after numerous meetings involving them, their parents and researchers. The four teens placed the orders and made the purchases at the researchers' offices, under the direction of the study leaders. All were cleared for participation by the county's district attorney.

Ribisl said he is doing additional research into the burgeoning market of Internet cigarette sales. This year, he said, he has identified 353 Internet vendors . Sales will exceed $5 billion in 2005, according to Forrester Research, which analyzes trends in technology.


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(c) 2003, The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Business News.

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