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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Jean Phillips-Weiner

Project Director
Jean originally joined the project in early 2013 and, after earning her Master’s in Public Health from UNC Gillings, became the Project Director in 2022. She has experience with study, budget, and grant management, scientific writing, quantitative and qualitative research, and data collection, management, and analysis. She is also certified in planning, implementing, and evaluating health promotion programs.



Jessie Scott

Research Assistant and Technology Coordinator
Jessie joined the project in 2018. In addition to data collection and archiving, his roles encompass supervision of volunteer research assistants, SQL database management, survey programming, and coordinating the study’s technology needs. His experience includes training methodology and design, data analysis, SQL programming, and technical writing. Jessie earned his Bachelor of Arts degree in Psychology from North Carolina State University in 2012.



Evan Inman

Research Assistant
Evan joined the study in mid-2019. In addition to data collection and archiving, Evan runs statistical analyses, performs data cleaning, and prepares data for presentation.  Their experience includes SAS and SQL programming.  Evan earned their Bachelor of Science in Public Health degree in Biostatistics from the UNC Gillings School of Global Public Health in 2019.



Mary Stapleton

Research Assistant
Mary joined the study in 2020. She does data collection, archiving, and qualitative/quantitative research. Her experience includes statistical analysis, maintaining databases, and technical writing. Mary earned her Bachelor of Arts in Economics at UNC Asheville in 2019.




Mysti McNaughton

Research Assistant
Mysti joined the project in 2020. They primarily assist with data collection and archiving, as well as processing archived content to make it usable for the study. Mysti is a former Montessori kindergarten teacher, farmer, and kitchen steward. They earned their BA in Sociology from Indiana University in 2009, and are glad to have returned to their public research roots.