Is the E-Liquid Industry Regulating Itself? A Look at E-Liquid Internet Vendors in the United States

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Abstract

Introduction:

The objective of this study was to assess whether the nascent, but rapidly growing e-liquid industry prohibits Internet sales to minors and employs safety measures to prevent accidental poisonings.

Methods:

A stratified simple random sample (n = 120) was selected from the target population (N = 1107) of US online vendors of e-liquid in July 2015. The vendors were stratified and subsequently oversampled by trade association membership and vendor popularity. Three minors aged 16 to 17, who were supervised by adult research staff, attempted to purchase e-liquid from the 120 online vendors using debit cards issued in their names. Measures included vendors’ use of age verification, warning labels on e-liquid bottles, and child-resistant packaging.

Results:

Statistically significant differences were observed by vendor popularity, but not by membership in a trade association. The differences by vendor popularity, however, occurred for measures that were limited to an age warning and list of ingredients. The most striking finding was the scant vendors (n = 4) who successfully prevented the sale of e-liquid to the minors. In contrast, 87.5% and 53.9% of the bottles contained child-resistant packaging and a health warning label, respectively.

Conclusions:

Irrespective of trade association membership or vendor popularity, online vendors of e-liquids are not taking the proper precautions in preventing sales to minors. The FDA’s upcoming deeming rules on e-cigarette products should include explicit requirements for offline and online e-liquid vendors, particularly the use of effective age verification, warning labels, and child-resistant packaging.

Implications:

This study demonstrates that, in the absence of any current FDA regulation of e-liquid products, self-regulation among vendors is not effective in preventing product acquisition by minors. Lax oversight of the e-liquid industry may draw consumers to bypass current tobacco control restrictions implemented in face-to-face sales settings. As a consequence, there may be an increase in online sales to minors. Further regulation of the industry may increase the already prevalent use of child-resistant packaging, leading to fewer cases of accidental nicotine poisoning.

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