Lawmakers push to curb Internet sales of tobacco
SACRAMENTO -- While some corner stores are making it harder for young people to buy cigarettes, many online retailers are making it far too easy, say a pair of state lawmakers pushing legislation restricting Internet tobacco sales.
"Joe Camel and the Marlboro Man are hooking kids online every day on Web sites that sell tobacco ... products with no age verification," said Assemblyman Dario Frommer, D-Los Angeles, who plans to join Assemblywoman Helen Thomson, D-Davis, in introducing the bill when the Legislature returns in January.
"Despite our efforts to curb teen smoking ... kids are still getting cigarettes. And now the Internet has become their ally," said Frommer, who at a news conference last week displayed a carton of Camel cigarettes bought online using a 2-year-old's name.
The largely unregulated pool of online cigarette retailers is expanding rapidly, and some say haphazardly.
A study by the University of North Carolina School of Public Health found that many advertise themselves as a way to avoid state sales taxes, and most don't display the surgeon general's warning. Researchers say many make no effort to verify the buyer's age.
The 2000 study found that more than half of online cigarette retailers were based on American Indian reservations, calling into question the state's ability to regulate their operations.
"Today the Internet is really a Wild West out there," said Eric Lindblom, manager for policy research for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.
The measure by Frommer and Thomson would require retailers to verify the age of customers, impose a two-carton minimum purchase, ban cash-on-delivery billing, require that shipments are sent only to the billing address and require age verification upon delivery.
The bill does not seek to ban entirely the sale of tobacco over the Internet, as some groups and the state of New York have sought to do.
While the California bill would impose new rules on tobacco sales, it may not face the wrath of the tobacco industry.
"We share the concern of many people in the health industry" regarding the sale of tobacco over the Internet to minors, said Tom Ryan, a spokesman for Phillip Morris U.S.A., which markets Marlboro, Virginia Slims and Benson & Hedges, among other brands.
"All of our products should only be sold where there is reliable age verification," Ryan said. "We don't believe there is a reliable way to do that over the Internet."
Phillip Morris U.S.A. doesn't support online cigarette sales, Ryan said, but he also said it can't do much about it if the wholesalers it sells to eventually sell the products to online retailers.
The company would be "willing to look at legislative solutions," Ryan said.
A spokesman for online retailer CigarettesExpress.com said the company already sells only by 10-pack cartons and is implementing an age verification system that uses state motor vehicle records.
The company doesn't oppose provisions likely to be included in the legislation, but it also doesn't think online sales to minors is a big problem.
"We have not found personally that minors buying online has been a big problem," said Bob Benzing, a consultant to CigarettesExpress. "Most kids want to buy cigarettes by the pack, not the carton."
A second study by researchers for the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California surveyed 17,000 10th- and 12th-grade California students and found that 2.2 percent had tried to buy cigarettes online.
Lindblom argues that the percentage is poised to grow if something isn't done.
"Once you get compliance rates really high among retailers, kids are gonna' look for other places to get their cigarettes, and the Internet is an obvious place," Lindblom said. "While it is not a huge problem now ... it is another place we can shut off."