ICVTopic area(s): Tobacco Cessation


Since 1999, the ICV study has been examining the sales and marketing practices of Internet Cigarette Vendors (ICVs) and their impact on public health and policy issues such as cigarette excise tax evasion and youth access prevention, as well as attempting to learn more about how Internet vendors of all illicit materials can be better regulated. Using state of the art techniques, the study has identified, catalogued, archived, and analyzed more than 2800 ICV websites since its inception.

Project Description

As cigarette prices have increased at retail stores, more smokers are now purchasing their cigarettes from the growing number of websites selling cigarettes online. Internet cigarette sales pose three major threats:

  1. Cheaper cigarette prices offered by Internet cigarette vendors (ICVs) generally occur because of tax avoidance, which deprives governments of much-needed revenue, some of which is earmarked for cancer screening and tobacco control programs
  2. Internet cigarette vendors do a poor job of verifying the age and identity of their customers, which means that minors can readily purchase cigarettes online.
  3. Smokers in jurisdictions with higher cigarette taxes now have easy access to cheap cigarettes online, which may undermine their resolve to quit or reduce their smoking. Left unchecked, rising Internet cigarette sales have the potential to undermine decades of progress in reducing youth and adult smoking rates achieved by raising cigarette prices.

Thirty-three U.S. states have passed laws regulating Internet and mail order cigarette sales, but no federal regulation currently exists. However, the U.S. General Accounting Office, U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms, an Explosives (BATFE), and state Attorneys General have declared that virtually all Internet cigarette sales are illegal. This led to the BATFE and several state Attorneys General to reach a landmark voluntary agreement with major credit card companies and PayPal to ban all transactions with ICVs in March 2005. In October 2005, UPS, Inc., the world’s largest shipping carrier, announced it would join DHL and FedEx to stop delivering cigarettes to consumers. These two bans interfere with ICVs’ ability to conduct their business, and could drastically reduce Internet cigarette sales.

Currently, the ICV study is continuing its many years of research examining ICV sales practices and potential regulatory frameworks, and is examining in detail the effect that the 2005 credit card and shipping bans have had on the Internet cigarette sales industry.

The research generated by the ICV study has brought the regulation of Internet cigarette sales to the attention of many state and federal legislators, and has contributed to a regulatory climate surrounding Internet cigarette sales that is ever-changing and developing as public health advocates attempt to effectively address the important issues of preventing tax evasion and youth access via Internet cigarette sales.


  • Funding Source: Brader-Araje Foundation
    Dates of funding: 2001
  • Funding Source: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
    Dates of funding: 2002-present
  • Funding Source: Association of Schools of Public Health & American Legacy Foundation
    Dates of funding: 2002-2004
  • Funding Source: University of North Carolina Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center
    Dates of funding: 2007-present

Key Contacts

Principal Investigator: Kurt Ribisl, PhD

Project Director: Rebecca S. Williams, MHS, PhD, rebeccawilliams@unc.edu


Ribisl KM, Kim AK, Williams RS. Web sites selling cigarettes: How many are there in the United States and what are their sales practices? Tobacco Control. 2001;10(4):352-359.

Ribisl KM, Kim AE, Williams RS. Are the sales practices of internet cigarette vendors good enough to prevent sales to minors? American Journal of Public Health. Jun 2002;92(6):940-941.

Ribisl KM, Williams RS, Kim AE. Internet sales of cigarettes to minors. Jama. Sep 10 2003;290(10):1356-1359.

Ribisl KM. Retailing. In: Goodman J, Norton M, Parascandola M, eds. Tobacco in history and culture: An encyclopedia (Scribner Turning Points Library). Farmington Hills, MI: Charles Scribner’s Sons; 2004:496-504.

Potts C. Smoky spam: a content analysis of unsolicited electronic messages sent by Internet cigarette vendors [Masters Thesis]. Chapel Hill: Health Behavior and Health Education, University of North Carolina School of Public Health; 2004.

Kim AE. Sales and marketing practices of Internet cigarette vendors and smokers’ perceptions of purchasing cigarettes online [Dissertation]. Chapel Hill: Health Behavior and Health Education, University of North Carolina School of Public Health; 2005.

Williams RS. Youth access to cigarettes online: Advertised and actual sales practices of Internet cigarette vendors [Dissertation]. Chapel Hill: Health Behavior and Health Education, University of North Carolina School of Public Health; 2005.

Allen M, Fieldsend A, Ribisl KM. Options for future action to control cross-border tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship. Wellington, New Zealand: Allen & Clarke Policy and Regulatory Specialists; January 2006.

Graff SK. State taxation of online tobacco sales: Circumventing the archaic bright line penned by Quill. Florida Law Review. April 2006;58(2).

Burstein AJ. Stopping Internet-based tobacco sales through domain name seizure. Health Matrix: Journal of Law-Medicine. Summer 2006;16(2).

Kim AE, Ribisl KM, Delnevo CD, Hrywna M. Smokers’ beliefs and attitudes about purchasing cigarettes on the Internet. Public Health Reports. 2006;121(5):594-602.

Williams RS, Ribisl KM, Feighery EC. Internet cigarette vendors’ lack of compliance with a California state law designed to prevent tobacco sales to minors. Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. 2006;160(988-989).

Sarris N. An online purchase survey to test Internet cigarette vendors’ compliance with the 2005 credit card and commercial shipping companies’ agreements [Masters Thesis]. Chapel Hill: Health Behavior and Health Education, University of North Carolina; 2006.

Ribisl KM, Williams RS, Kim AE. Internet Cigarette Sales: Briefing to the Congressional Task Force on Tobacco and Health: Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Policy Research Program; 2006.

Ribisl KM, Kim AE, Williams RS. Sales and marketing of cigarettes on the Internet: Emerging threats to tobacco control and promising policy solutions. In Reducing tobacco use: Strategies, barriers, and consequences. Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press; In press.

Chriqui J, Ribisl KM, Wallace R, Williams RS, el Arculli R. A review of state laws governing delivery sales of cigarettes in the U.S.A.: Analysis of provisions to prevent youth access and tax evasion. Under review.