About the Study | About the Team

The Internet Tobacco Vendors (ITV) Study monitors the online tobacco and e-cigarette industry to assess the impacts of state and federal policies and inform future tobacco and e-cigarette control efforts.

About the Study

The sale of tobacco products and e-cigarettes online represents a significant public health problem because Internet-based retailers can circumvent the tax laws and age restrictions that are used to control these sales in brick-and-mortar stores.


Retailers have been selling cigarettes and other tobacco products via the Internet since the emergence of online commerce in the 1990s. In 2000, there were 88 online cigarette retailers; by 2004, that number had ballooned to 775. Although regulatory changes have reduced the number of vendors in recent years, the industry persists.

Online tobacco sales are problematic from a public health standpoint for three main reasons:

  • Tobacco products are often sold “tax-free” online, making them substantially cheaper than those available in brick-and-mortar stores. This has the potential to undermine decades of progress states have made in reducing smoking rates by raising cigarette prices. It also deprives governments of revenue from tobacco sales taxes, some of which is earmarked for cancer screening and tobacco control programs.
  • Many Internet tobacco vendors do a poor job of verifying the age and identity of their customers, which means that minors can readily purchase cigarettes online.
  • The advertising restrictions that limit cigarette marketing on television, billboards, and other venues do not apply to online advertising, offering an opportunity for tobacco companies to aggressively market products online.

The ITV study monitors the online tobacco industry to assess its sales practices and public health impacts. The study launched in 2001 as the Internet Cigarette Vendors (ICV) study; in 2012 it expanded to include all tobacco products and the name was changed to reflect this broader focus. The study has further expanded to assess sales of electronic cigarettes, or e-cigarettes.

The study’s research findings have brought the issue of online tobacco sales to the attention of state and federal legislators and helped inform significant changes in the regulatory climate for this industry.

Currently, the ITV study focuses on tracking how new regulations and agreements are affecting the practices of online tobacco retailers. This research aims to provide ongoing detection of changes in ITV practices in response to new and forthcoming regulations, enabling governments to rapidly adapt to new developments and effectively reduce the public health threats posed by ITV sales.

Research Goals & Approaches

The overall goals of the ITV study are to conduct extensive surveillance of the online retail environment for tobacco, evaluate the implementation and impact of state and federal policies on this industry’s practices, and disseminate key research findings to policymakers in the interest of guiding future policy and enforcement efforts.

Our approach includes the following six elements:

  • We compile an annual list of online sellers of cigarettes, e-cigarettes, little cigars, and other tobacco products.
  • We conduct yearly ITV website content analyses to examine vendors’ practices with regard to age verification, payment and shipping methods, tax collection, products sold, and other sales practices.
  • We make test purchases from ITVs with both adult and teen buyers to assess vendors’ compliance with regulations regarding issues such as taxation, shipping, payment methods, sales of banned products, and age verification.
  • We conduct lab tests on cigarettes bought online to determine if they are smuggled or counterfeit and/or contain abnormally high levels of hazardous ingredients.
  • We continually monitor news and Google search trends related to new regulations and product restrictions to assess changes in consumer demand.

We disseminate key findings to regulators, state and federal agencies, and researchers to spur action.

Funding and Disclaimer

The Internet Tobacco Vendors Study has been supported since 2012 by grant number 5R01CA169189-02 from the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and FDA Center for Tobacco Products (CTP). The research of the Internet Cigarette Vendors Study was funded (through 2011) by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Policy Research Program. The content presented on this website is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH or the Food and Drug Administration.


About the Team

Rebecca WilliamsRebecca S. Williams, MHS, PhD

Principal Investigator
Rebecca is the Principal Investigator of the ITV study and has worked on many additional projects over the years she has been at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, including a study commissioned by the National Association of Attorneys General assessing teens’ ability to bypass online age verification at tobacco company websites. She created the Internet Cigarette Vendors study with Co-Investigator Kurt Ribisl in 1999 and has been instrumental in its continued development over the years. She is currently also the UNC Principal Investigator of the NCI-funded Smoke-Free Homes Project and Co-Investigator of the CDC and NCI-funded Cancer Prevention and Control Research Network Coordinating Center. She holds several advanced degrees, including a Ph.D. in Health Behavior and Health Education from UNC Chapel Hill.


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Kurt RibislKurt M. Ribisl, PhD

Kurt was the principal investigator of the Internet Cigarette Vendors (ICV) study when it launched in 1999, and now serves as co-investigator on the ITV study. He is also the director of Cancer Prevention and Control for the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, of the Cancer Prevention and Control Research Network’s coordinating center at UNC, of CounterTobacco.org, and of the UNC Center for Regulatory Research on Tobacco Communication. Kurt holds a Ph.D. in Community Psychology from Michigan State University.



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Jason Derrick, MSW

Project Director
Jason joined the ITV study in 2012 and has worked in a variety of social science and public health research settings including directing a national study on educational diversity, evaluating the state of North Carolina’s Teen Tobacco Use and Prevention Program, and managing data for two large scale HIV projects in South Africa and Kenya. Jason also has extensive experience in data collection, management, and analysis, and survey design and administration. He holds a Master of Social Work degree from UNC Chapel Hill.




Jean PhillipsJean Phillips-Weiner

Research Assistant
Jean is one of our research assistants and joined the project in early 2013. Her roles in the project include data archiving and data collection. She also has experience with data management, data analysis, and study design. Jean holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology from UNC Chapel Hill.




Jessie Scott

Research Assistant
Jessie is one of our research assistants and joined the project in early 2018. He is involved with data collection and archiving. His experience includes training methodology and design, data analysis, and technical writing. Jessie holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from NC State.




Dmitriy Nikitin

Research Assistant
Dmitriy is a graduate research assistant and joined the project in 2016. Prior to joining the ITV study, Dmitriy worked at the University of California Irvine Program in Public Health where he conducted research on topics of epidemiology, marketing, and regulatory issues pertaining to smokeless tobacco and electronic cigarettes. Dmitriy holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Public Health Policy from UC Irvine. He is expected to graduate with a Masters of Science in Public Health Policy from UNC Chapel Hill in 2018.