"May I Buy a Pack of Marlboros, Please?" A Systematic Review of Evidence to Improve the Validity and Impact of Youth Undercover Buy Inspections

PLoS One. 2016 Apr 6;11(4):e0153152. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0153152. eCollection 2016.


Most smokers become addicted to tobacco products before they are legally able to purchase these products. We systematically reviewed the literature on protocols to assess underage purchase and their ecological validity. We conducted a systematic search in May 2015 in PubMed and PsycINFO. We independently screened records for inclusion. We conducted a narrative review and examined implications of two types of legal authority for protocols that govern underage buy enforcement in the United States: criminal (state-level laws prohibiting sales to youth) and administrative (federal regulations prohibiting sales to youth). Ten studies experimentally assessed underage buy protocols and 44 studies assessed the association between youth characteristics and tobacco sales. Protocols that mimicked real-world youth behaviors were consistently associated with substantially greater likelihood of a sale to a youth. Many of the tested protocols appear to be designed for compliance with criminal law rather than administrative enforcement in ways that limited ecological validity. This may be due to concerns about entrapment. For administrative enforcement in particular, entrapment may be less of an issue than commonly thought. Commonly used underage buy protocols poorly represent the reality of youths' access to tobacco from retailers. Compliance check programs should allow youth to present themselves naturally and attempt to match the community's demographic makeup.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Review
  • Systematic Review
  • Validation Study

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Commerce*
  • Crime*
  • Humans
  • Smoking / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • United States