Mar 2, 2015 · 2 minutes


It's hard for teenagers to buy cigarettes. Most stores are required to check someone's ID before selling them any tobacco products, and new driver's licenses are getting harder to fake. Barring help from someone who can legally buy them -- which seems disturbingly easy to get, unfortunately -- many teenagers won't be getting cigarettes any time soon.

A new study in North Carolina, the heart of tobacco country, shows that it isn't nearly as difficult for teens to buy e-cigarettes online. As the Verge explains in a report summarizing the first-of-its-kind study's findings:

The minors were able to place and receive 75 out of the 98 orders. Moreover, of the 23 orders that failed, only five had to do with age verification issues; the others were unsuccessful because 'the website had problems processing payments' or 'because of poorly designed functionality,' the study authors write. Orders that went through vendors that claimed to use online age-verification services were successful in 83 percent of cases, and 'none of the vendors complied with North Carolina’s e-cigarette age-verification law,' the researchers write.
So how were the teens able to purchase the e-cigs? By using a method employed since the first porn sites introduced "I am 18 or older" buttons on their websites -- they lied. All they had to do was enter an incorrect birth date or, if the system didn't accept that, use their parents' driver's licenses. Machines are easier to trick than a gas station clerk would be.

Yet there isn't really a good solution to this problem. Websites could require social security numbers for all purchases, but would anyone really want to provide that information to a website whose 'poorly designed functionality' already leads to botched orders?

We still don't know how e-cigs will affect someone's health in the long term. Many believe they are safer than "real" cigarettes. Others say all they're doing is making it easier for people to forget that tobacco has serious health risks. The debate, as Pando's David Holmes explained January 2014, is fraught with irrationality and frenzied arguments on both sides.

Preventing teenagers from buying e-cigs online is yet another point people will argue about in the e-cigarette debate. Should these sites have to ask for someone's social security number -- thus exposing all their customers to identity theft -- before shipping an order? Or can they be trusted to implement more advanced measures despite their existing woes?

[illustration by Brad Jonas]