Is Your Teen Buying E-Cigarettes Online?

Girl smoking e-cigarette

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As of January 2020, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has taken steps to crack down on the manufacturing and sales of e-cigarette products targeted at kids and young adults, including addressing the legal age limit and putting new limitations on manufacturers.

Beginning Dec. 20, 2019, the new legal age limit is 21 years old for purchasing cigarettes, cigars, or any other tobacco products in the U.S.

The FDA also released a statement instructing companies to stop making and selling fruit and mint-flavored e-cigarette cartridges, as these products are more likely to appeal to younger people than menthol and tobacco flavors.

Even though it's illegal to sell the products to minors, the FDA's notice came as a result of epidemic levels of e-cigarette use among U.S. youth. Research has shown how easily minors can buy e-cigarettes online, even in states where it is prohibited.

Online Access to E-Cigarettes

A 2015 study published in JAMA Pediatrics demonstrates how easily teens can purchase e-cigarettes online. Researchers tested what happened when underage teens in North Carolina tried to purchase e-cigarettes over the Internet under their supervision. Despite the state’s 2013 e-cigarette verification law, there was very little standing in the way of sales to minors.

Over four months, underage study participants made e-cigarette purchases from 98 vendors. The minors successfully received the delivery of e-cigarettes 76.5% of the time. All delivered packages came from shipping companies that, according to federal regulation or company policy, do not ship cigarettes to consumers. Yet, 95% of the deliveries were left at the door without any attempts to verify customers' ages.

Of all the orders, 18 failed for reasons unrelated to age verification. Only five purchase attempts were rejected due to the minor’s age.

Researchers concluded that minors can easily purchase e-cigarettes over the Internet because e-cigarette vendors aren’t taking steps to verify a buyer’s age.

Online Purchases of Illegal Substances

Internet sales of e-cigarettes have not been regulated very closely, giving minors easy access to them. And, it’s not just e-cigarettes that teens are purchasing online. Minors also are buying conventional cigarettes and even alcohol via the Internet, even though there are stricter regulations in place for those substances.


Take steps to prevent your teen from buying and smoking e-cigarettes. Being proactive can prevent problems before they start. Here are a few strategies that can prevent your teen from purchasing e-cigarettes online, from friends, or in brick-and-mortar stores.

Educate Your Teen

Many teens (as well as their parents) underestimate the dangers of e-cigarettes. When someone smokes an e-cigarette, they aren't inhaling smoke like they would with traditional cigarettes. Based on this fact, people mistakenly believe that means e-cigarettes are safe—but the vapors they inhale pose serious health risks.

For instance, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has reported an epidemic of severe lung disease caused by vaping.

Sometimes referred to as e-cigarette or vaping-associated lung injury (EVALI), patients often experience a variety of symptoms including shortness of breath, fever, cough, vomiting, diarrhea, headache, dizziness, and chest pain. What's more, many of the patients have required hospitalization including several who needed ICU-level care. Some people have even died from the illness.

While research is still being conducted to study the illness, the CDC has identified some red flags. For instance, many people with the illness have reported using products containing tetrahydrocannabinol (THC). Additionally, vitamin E acetate, an additive to THC-containing vaping products, was also linked to this illness.

For this reason, the CDC recommends that people avoid using THC-containing vaping products, especially from friends, family, or online dealers. And they strongly advise against adding vitamin E acetate to e-cigarettes.

As a parent, make sure you are communicating with your teen about this serious illness on a regular basis while continuing to educate yourself about the risks. Hold ongoing conversations about why e-cigarettes likely appeal to young people. Discuss how smoking e-cigarettes can not only lead to serious addiction but to injury and death as well.

Talk About E-Cigarettes, Drugs, and Alcohol

Because traditional smoking has declined among young people, many parents may think they don't have to invest too much time talking to teens about smoking. Instead, they assume teens have learned a lot about the risks through school or public service announcements. Or, they may believe that smoking is no longer an issue. But rather than leaving your child's health to chance, it's best to have conversations at home.

Parents should take time to talk about smoking and e-cigarettes while they are also talking about drugs and alcohol. Remember: Nicotine is also a drug with harmful side effects.

Contrary to common belief, most teens will often listen to what their parents have to say. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), teens pay attention to what their parents say about smoking and alcohol use especially when the messages are shared consistently. They also report that 80% of teens feel that parents should have a say in whether or not they drink alcohol.

The NIAAA indicates that expressing disapproval of drinking can deter your teen from picking up the habit.

Support your teen by stressing in a loving way that you disapprove of smoking, drugs, and alcohol in your discussions with your teen and you are likely to impact their future decisions.

Be Involved

It’s important to monitor your teen’s online activity. Periodically looking over your child’s shoulder or making it known that you have the right to review your teen’s Internet activity can discourage your teen from ordering e-cigarettes online.

It's also important to stay well-informed on your ​teen's spending habits. Know how your teen is earning and spending money on a regular basis. Prevent your teen from using allowance money or income from a part-time job to buy harmful substances, like e-cigarettes.

If you allow your teen to use your credit card, keep an eye on where the money is being spent and stay up-to-date on any accounts your teen sets up. For instance, kids often use accounts like PayPal to purchase things online. Or, they may use a Venmo account to purchase items, like e-cigarettes, from friends. By monitoring their spending activity, you can catch purchases early and put a stop to the activity before it becomes a habit.

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Article Sources
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  1. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. FDA finalizes enforcement policy on unauthorized flavored cartridge-based e-cigarettes that appeal to children, including fruit and mint. Updated January 2, 2020.

  2. Williams RS, Derrick J, Ribisl KM. Electronic Cigarette Sales to Minors Via the Internet. JAMA Pediatr. 2015;169(3):e1563. doi:10.1001/jamapediatrics.2015.63

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of E-Cigarette, or Vaping, Products. Updated February 25, 2020

  4. American Lung Association. E-cigarette or Vaping Use-Associated Lung Injury (EVALI).

  5. Krishnasamy VP, Hallowell BD, Ko JY, et al. Update: Characteristics of a Nationwide Outbreak of E-cigarette, or Vaping, Product Use–Associated Lung Injury — United States, August 2019–January 2020. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep. 2020;69(3);90-94. doi:10.15585/mmwr.mm6903e2

  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Outbreak of lung injury associated with the use of e-cigarette, or vaping products. Updated January 28, 2020.

  7. U.S. Food and Drug Administration. Lung Injuries Associated with Use of Vaping Products. Updated April 13, 2020.

  8. Truth Initiative. Young adult smoking rate drops to 10%. 2018.

  9. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products DrugFacts. Updated January 2020.

  10. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Parenting to Prevent Childhood Alcohol Use. Updated January 2020.

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