The e-cigarette industry is growing rapidly. Experts predict it could be worth $10 billion a year within the next 2 years.
"Even in the face of state laws like North Carolina's requiring age verification, most vendors continue to fail to even attempt to verify age in accordance with the law, underscoring the need for careful enforcement," write the authors of the study, published in JAMA Pediatrics.
Sales of e-cigarettes have been constantly on the rise since they first entered the US market in 2007. By 2013, it had become a $2 billion-a-year industry and analysts predict sales could reach $10 billion-a-year by 2017.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), rates of e-cigarette use among teenagers are also increasing rapidly, doubling from 2011 to 2012. The CDC report that in 2013, more than a quarter of a million high school students had never smoked conventional cigarettes but had used e-cigarettes.
E-cigarettes are frequently portrayed as a safer alternative to smoking conventional cigarettes, although groups such as the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the Mayo Clinic are wary of their nicotine content and associations with potentially carcinogenic substances.
At present, 41 states prohibit the sale of e-cigarettes to minors, including North Carolina. According to the study authors, however, research has yet to be conducted to examine age verification among Internet retailers that sell e-cigarettes.
For this study, Rebecca S. Williams of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and colleagues set out to assess how frequently online vendors complied with North Carolina's age-verification law.
'E-cigarette sellers online operate in a regulatory vacuum'
The authors recruited 11 nonsmoking minors aged 14-17 to make e-cigarette purchases online with a credit card while under supervision. The minors made their purchase attempts from computers at the project's offices.
A total of 98 Internet e-cigarette vendors were targeted by the study. The minors successfully ordered e-cigarettes from 75 of these vendors and of the unsuccessful orders, only five failed due to age verification. According to the authors, this meant that 93.7% of the e-cigarette vendors investigated failed to correctly verify their customers' ages.
In addition to this finding, the e-cigarette packages were delivered by shipping companies that all failed to verify the ages of the purchasers upon delivery, with 95% of orders simply left at the door. All of the shipping companies concerned do not ship cigarettes to consumers, according to company policy and federal regulation.
As a result of these findings, the authors state that none of the online e-cigarette vendors complied with North Carolina's e-cigarette age-verification law.
"In the absence of federal regulation, youth e-cigarette use has increased and e-cigarette sellers online operate in a regulatory vacuum, using few, if any, efforts to prevent sales to minors," they write.
The findings of this study will be of concern to those who are worried about the influence of e-cigarettes. The CDC also report that among nonsmoking youth who have ever used e-cigarettes, 43.9% say they "have intentions" to smoke conventional cigarettes, compared with 21.5% who have never used an e-cigarette.
"Federal law should require and enforce rigorous age verification for all e-cigarette sales as with the federal PACT (Prevent All Cigarette Trafficking) Act's requirements for age verification in Internet cigarette sales," conclude the authors.
Recently, Medical News Today reported on a study suggesting that the introduction of new regulations that could modify the content of cigarettes is unlikely to significantly affect the current demand for illicit tobacco.