Before Regulations, Online E-Cigarette Vendors Expanded Rapidly

A new study reveals more than 3,000 vendors in 2014; most show lax age-verification practices despite laws prohibiting sale to minors.

As the popularity of electronic cigarettes (known as e-cigarettes and vape pens) soars, concern has grown over potential health and safety risks associated with these devices and the nicotine-rich fluids they contain. A number of state and federal regulations have attempted to restrict sales practices, including imposing age restrictions on the purchase of e-cigarettes. In 2016, FDA extended its authority to include the regulation of electronic cigarettes, and the agency is studying sales and marketing practices in the United States.

To provide a more detailed picture of the online e-cigarette marketplace and inform potential future regulations, this study tracked Internet-based vendors of e-cigarettes in 2013 and 2014. The researchers used search algorithms to scan more than 180 million websites, then manually screened more than 60,000 sites to identify those selling e-cigarettes.

Through this process the team identified 980 online e-cigarette vendors in 2013 and 3,096 vendors in 2014. The researchers conducted a more detailed analysis of 564 websites for further insights on sales and marketing practices.


Key Findings

  • The number of vendors selling e-cigarettes online more than tripled between 2013 and 2014.
  • In both years, roughly two-thirds of vendors used no age verification or relied exclusively on strategies that cannot effectively verify age.
  • The payment and shipping methods advertised on the websites of e-cigarette vendors closely matched those used by cigarette vendors before federal bans; nearly all vendors advertised accepting credit cards and three-quarters shipped products via the U.S. Postal Service.
  • From 2013 to 2014 the proportion of vendors selling online-only (with no retail store) dropped significantly, as did the proportion of vendors that were based in the United States.
  • About a third of vendors identified in 2013 appeared to have gone out of business a year later—a turnover rate similar to that observed in cigarette vendors before regulations were imposed on that industry.

Today’s online e-cigarette sales industry closely resembles the online cigarette sales industry before regulations such as the PACT Act and agreements between Attorneys General and the credit card and delivery companies. Overall, the vendors studied were doing a worse job of preventing youth access in 2014 than 2013; this is likely explained by the increase in popularity of international sellers targeting U.S. customers, which may see themselves as beyond U.S. jurisdictional reach.

This research suggests that future regulations aiming to curtail the sale of e-cigarettes to minors will likely need to address a similar set of challenges that were involved in regulating the sale of cigarettes online.

Citation: Williams RS, Derrick J, Liebman AK, LaFleur K, Ribisl K. Content analysis of age verification, purchase and delivery methods of internet e-cigarette vendors, 2013 and 2014. Tobacco Control [Epub ahead of print] May 8, 2017. doi: 10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2016-053616.

Post a Comment