"If You Just Tell Me You're 18, I'll Still Sell to You": A Qualitative Study of Underage Tobacco Product Purchasing Experiences in a Tobacco 21 Compliance Study

Nicotine Tob Res. 2024 Mar 22;26(4):461-466. doi: 10.1093/ntr/ntad204.


Background: Tens of thousands of underage tobacco buy attempts are conducted each year for research, compliance, and public health surveillance. However, little research has qualitatively examined the perceptions and experiences of underage buyers participating in these programs. We sought to understand underage buyers' experiences and gather recommendations for protocol improvements.

Methods: We conducted semi-structured interviews in the fall of 2022 to assess experiences with underage tobacco product purchasing. Participants (N = 19, 58% male, 42% White) were research assistants aged 18-20 in New Jersey, New York, or North Carolina. Interviews examined purchasing experiences in relation to store characteristics, clerk interactions, and buyer identities. We used deductive and inductive thematic coding to explore key themes related to buyer experiences.

Results: We identified four themes: (1) non-chain stores lacked consistency in verifying age; (2) female data collectors experienced uncomfortable situations more frequently than male data collectors; (3) not identifying with the store's typical demographics impacted purchase attempts; and (4) participants suggested improvements for inspections and research during training.

Discussion: Retailer education, widespread adoption of ID scanners, and enforcement could increase standardization of ID requests and verification. Male and female buyers can be trained on what they might expect based on their gender, as well as how to maneuver through unwanted situations. Consideration of shared identity is important for future waves of data collection and research. Efforts to improve training include more extensive mock purchase training with supervisors well-versed in this area.

Implications: Electronic ID verification and promoting compliance at non-chain retailers could impact access to tobacco products for underage buyers. Training for underage buyers in research and compliance assessments should focus on ways to enhance data collectors' confidence when making a purchase attempt, which may improve the validity of the rate of sales to individuals under 21.

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Commerce
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Qualitative Research
  • Smoking
  • Tobacco Products*
  • Young Adult