Charles Fogarty of Glocester, R.I., wanted to find out what would happen if he ordered a carton of cigarettes over the Internet.
Much to his surprise, the delivery service simply left the carton on a doorstep when no one was home. As it turns out, Mr. Fogarty is the lieutenant governor of Rhode Island and is concerned with a surge of youth smoking in the Ocean State.
"It could have been my child. There should have been a restricted delivery system," says Fogarty, who used the experience as evidence to push through recent legislation tightening the sale of tobacco on the Internet to minors in the state.
Rhode Island - which is the first to pass such legislation - and other states are concerned about a surge in outfits selling cigarettes on the Web. Five years ago, only a few exporters offered tobacco for sale.
Online smoke shops
Now, there are scores of Web sites run by native Americans, corner smoke shops, and the tobacco companies themselves. Exporters from India of "beedies," individually rolled tobacco perfumed with flavors such as strawberry or orange, advertise their wares without a warning that it's illegal for minors to buy them.
So far there is only anecdotal evidence that kids are buying tobacco electronically. However, youth antismoking groups are worried about the future.
"Our concern is that, even if it is not a big source of cigarettes for kids now, as states make it more difficult for them to buy tobacco at retail outlets, some enterprising children will start to buy them on the Net and sell them to their peers," says Eric Lindblom, manager of policy research at the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids in Washington.
This past summer, New York state banned the sale of tobacco on the Internet, through the phone, or by mail order. But this move was more related to the state's concern over the loss of tax revenue. By some industry estimates, the black market represents 20 percent of the cigarettes sold in the state, which has some of the highest taxes in the nation.
One Internet site for A1 Discount Smokes, operated out of the Allegany Indian Reservation near Salamanca, N.Y., tells buyers, "And you can be assured that your name will not be given out to any taxation authority."
Brown & Williamson Tobacco Corporation is now challenging the New York law in federal court. However, the company is in favor of the Rhode Island legislation. "We think there should be more states with restrictions," says Mark Smith, a spokesman.
He says the company's own experience could be a model. Only a few weeks ago, the Louisville, Ky.-based company opened up its own Internet site to retail cigarettes.
The Brown & Williamson program requires that buyers send in identification before the tobacco is shipped. An outside company checks voter registration cards to ensure the person is an adult. Then the person buying the cigarettes must produce ID as proof of age when the cartons are delivered. And buyers must pay state excise taxes.
However, Philip Morris, the nation's largest cigarette company, is opposed to the sale of
"We think the sale of cigarettes should occur where there is face-to-face verification," says Tom Ryan, a spokesman for Philip Morris USA.
"We don't know of any process that does this at the point of purchase and delivery."
Mr. Ryan says Philip Morris would support federal legislation that would ban the sale of cigarettes over the Internet until there is a reliable method of age verification.
Making it a federal crime
Over the past two years, Rep. Martin Meehan (D) of Massachusetts has been trying to get Congress to pass legislation that would make it a federal crime to sell cigarettes to a minor over the Internet.
Last summer, interns who were minors ordered cigarettes over the Internet without any problem.
"One child buying numerous cartons can be a problem for an entire community," says Bill McCann, a spokesman.
So far, Representative Meehan's proposed legislation has yet to get a hearing. Mr. Ryan says that Philip Morris does not have a position on the bill, but would prefer something stronger. "Our position is more comprehensive and stringent," he says.
The Meehan legislation will give the state attorneys general the power to enforce the law. This coming year, federal lawmakers will get a chance to find out how well states can do when Rhode Island begins to enforce its new law. Under the legislation, the state can conduct "virtual stings," by having a minor order cigarettes over the Web.
The state has now budgeted money for those stings. The penalty is a $1,000 fine.
"The key to this legislation is not the age requirement - it's the requirement that the shipping address be the same as on the age-verification submission," says Jack McConnell, a partner in the Rhode Island office of Ness Motley, a law firm involved in the drafting of the legislation.
"Before this law was passed, the danger was that young people could submit someone else's age verification - perhaps their parents - and get the cigarettes surreptitiously by having them sent to someone else."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society