Law bans Web sale of tobacco to minors
In the on-going battle against teenage smoking, Rhode Island has made it a little tougher for minors to buy cigarettes.
The latest initiative targets the sale of tobacco products on the Internet, which state officials say is a fast-growing market that sells to underage smokers.
Under a new state law, Internet and mail-order distributors can be fined up to $1,000 if they sell cigarettes to a person under 18 years old.
At the State House yesterday, Goveronor Almond "ceremoniously" signed the law which took effect in June to draw attention to the new legislation, which state officials say is the first of its kind in the nation.
"This is just one more weapon in our arsenal," said Lt. Gov. Charles Fogarty, who sponsored the bill in the House and Senate. "Young kids in particular know the system better than anyone and they know how to get tobacco products."
Under the law, tobacco distributors doing business on the Internet or through mail order must obtain proof that the customer is 18 years old before making the sale.
When the cigarettes are delivered, the customer must show a valid form of identification to receive the package. The tobacco distributor cannot instruct the courier to simply leave the package. The delivery company will not be held liable, Fogarty said.
State officials plan to catch most violators by conducting "virtual stings," Fogarty said. Since the law took effect in June, no stings have been carried out yet, he said.
Many of the companies that sell tobacco products over the Internet are located out of state, but if they do business in Rhode Island they can be prosecuted under the new law, said Jack McConnell, a Providence lawyer who advised Fogarty on drafting the legislation.
McConnell, whose firm represented a consortium of states in the nationwide tobacco settlement, said companies can sell cigarettes for less money on the Internet because there is no retail mark-up. The bargain prices are extremely appealing to minors, he said.
"It is a scary avenue for cigarettes to end up in kids' mouths," McConnell said.
According to a study by the Rhode Island Health Department, 85 percent of those who smoke started smoking before the age of 18. The Health Department also found that one in three teenagers in Rhode Island smokes.
The original version of the law would have raised the legal age to possess cigarettes in Rhode Island from 16 to 18. But that provision of the bill was dropped before it bacame law, said Fogarty's communications director, Susan Pegden.
While it is unclear how many teens buy their cigarettes off the Internet or through mail order, Fogarty and others said the state must make it as difficult as possible for minors to obtain tobacco.
"If you sell to minors in a store, over the Internet, by the mail or any other method, we will catch you and we will punish you to the full extent of the law," Fogarty said.