Research suggests e-cigarettes are a gateway for young people to enter the realm of regular – and harsher – cigarettes. And credit cards appear to be an enabler.
Before I tell you how credit cards are connected to e-cigarettes, let me be upfront: I’m no fan of e-cigarettes or traditional tobacco cigarettes, and I’m not a smoker.
In large part, my disdain for smoking stems from my late mom’s cigarette habit, which lasted for years. I remember my clothes and my hair reeking of cigarette smoke, even though Mom normally restricted her smoking to the kitchen.
Thankfully, Mom kicked the habit and was smoke-free for many years.
So, it pains me to think that young people could be heading down the same path that my mom was on for so long. Some of them start with e-cigarettes and then graduate to regular cigarettes. And some of them are purchasing e-cigarettes online, unimpeded, with credit cards.
U.S. law allows purchase of vapes with credit cards
E-cigarettes are handheld tobacco-free devices, also known as vapes, that transform highly addictive nicotine and other chemicals into an inhalable vapor.
I was stunned to discover that while federal regulations prohibit using a credit card to buy regular cigarettes online, no such policies stand in the way of using a credit card to buy e-cigarettes online.
You can, of course, use credit cards in stores to purchase cigarettes or e-cigarettes. The issue is online sales, which make it easy for youths to purchase vapes since there is no prohibition against that, as there is with traditional smokes.
In fact, the federal government has put a hold on proposed e-cigarette restrictions; few state governments currently regulate them.
Yes, some e-cigarette sellers do verify the age of an online buyer, but we know that young people are prone to fibbing (lying about their age, for instance) to skate around the rules.
This loophole attracted my attention after coming across research published in November 2017 in the journal Tobacco Control that exposes the rise of e-cigarette sales online. The research shows that nearly all e-cigarette vendors accept credit cards for online purchases.
In a news release, Rebecca Williams, a researcher at the University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center who’s the lead author of the research paper, calls for “rigorous” age verification for online ordering of e-cigarettes, along with clampdowns on payment and delivery practices.
“Our analysis found that very few vendors used potentially effective age verification, leaving youth access to e-cigarettes online wide open,” Williams says. “We found that in the online e-cigarette market, vendors do very little to prevent youth access, and have used payment and shipping methods that [have been] banned for cigarettes.”
Williams, who’s also principal investigator for the Internet Tobacco Vendors Study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tells me via email that the ban on credit card payments for traditional cigarettes bought online should be extended to e-cigarette sales online.
Prohibition for using credit cards to buy cigarettes online
The prohibition of credit cards for the online purchase of traditional cigarettes dates back to 2005. Williams says a lot of vendors and payment processors flouted that ban, which wasn’t fully enforced for a number of years.
Many online vendors subsequently went out of business; most of the remaining sellers shifted their operations overseas to avoid U.S. scrutiny.
But just as with traditional cigarettes, online sellers of e-cigarettes have set up shop in other countries to escape the prying eyes of U.S. regulators, Williams says.
If the prohibition on acceptance of credit card payments for online sales of regular cigarettes were extended to e-cigarettes, credit card companies would need to be involved in enforcement in order for the ban to be effective, she says.
For now, though, e-cigarette sellers are feeding the habits of untold numbers of young people in the U.S. through unregulated, credit-card-enabled online purchases.
And that’s startling, since more than 2 million middle school and high school students in the U.S. reported using e-cigarettes in 2016. However, the effects of e-cigarettes remain as foggy as the vapor that the devices emit.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says e-cigarettes are less harmful than regular cigarettes, yet they’re not harmless. Meanwhile, some research indicates e-cigarettes can help people give up smoking tobacco cigarettes.
“Vendors of these products typically do little, if anything, to prevent sales to minors, and often promote tax evasion and cheaper pricing – which increases consumption – so restricting these online sales is important to the public’s health, as a growing mountain of scientific evidence indicates that e-cigarettes are not a safe alternative to smoking,” Williams tells me.
See related: 10 things you can’t easily buy with credit cards, Buy lottery tickets with a credit card? Probably not