Most Internet vendors offer tax-free cigarettes making them cheaper than those sold at stores. This undermines the impact that higher prices have upon reducing consumption. Most Internet tobacco sales have violated taxation and youth access laws, which led to landmark voluntary agreements in 2005 with the major credit card companies and major private shippers to ban payment transactions and shipments for all Internet cigarette sales.
Objective: To assess whether these bans increased the rate of Internet Cigarette Vendors (ICVs) ceasing online sales, decreased the proportion of vendors offering banned payment and shipping options, and decreased consumer traffic to the most popular ICVs.
Design: Websites in a longitudinal study of ICVs were visited in 2003 (n = 338), 2004 (n = 775), 2005 (n = 664), 2006 (n = 762), and 2007 (n = 497) to assess whether they were in business and monitor their advertised sales practices. The number of unique monthly visitors to the 50 most popular ICVs at baseline was examined for the period one year before and two years after the bans to determine whether the bans altered traffic.
Results: Following the bans, the rate of ICVs ceasing online sales year to year increased, but due to an influx of new vendors, there was a net increase in ICVs. The proportion of vendors accepting banned payment options dropped from 99.2% to 37.4% after the bans, and the proportion offering banned shipping options dropped from 32.2% to 5.6%, but there was a corresponding increase in vendors offering non-banned payment options (e.g., personal checks) and shipping options (e.g., US Postal Service). Following the bans, there was a 3.5 fold decline in traffic to the most popular ICV websites.
Conclusions: This promising approach to controlling the sale of restricted goods online has implications for regulating other products such as alcohol, firearms, quack cures, and medicines sold without a prescription.