Think clove cigarettes are so six years ago? A new study from Keck School of Medicine of the University of Southern California (USC) researchers finds that despite a federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) ban in 2009, flavored cigarettes are still available for purchase over the Internet and are popular search targets.

The researchers found heightened online interest in flavored cigarettes by doing a case study on Djarum, a manufacturer of flavored cigarettes and cigars, the latter of which are legal. By monitoring the search terms “Djarum cigarettes” and “Djarum cigars” in Google, the scientists discovered in the first 50 search results for “Djarum cigarettes” that 72 percent of websites promoted and 34 sold the illegal cigarettes. In addition, there were 291 percent more searches for the flavored cigarette line than the replacement cigar line five years after the ban.

“We weren’t surprised that the web is being used to circumvent tobacco regulations,” said Jon-Patrick Allem, PhD, a postdoctoral fellow with the USC Tobacco Center of Regulatory Science (TCORS) and corresponding author on the study. “Most surprising was the constant rate of interest in the illegal products (the cigarettes) versus the legal products (cigars).”

The study is among the first to examine the reactions of consumers and the tobacco industry to flavored cigarette bans, which are also in force in the European Union and other countries.

The researchers suggest beefed-up enforcement, fines and shutting down websites where possible, though tobacco vendor websites can be hosted outside of the country that has enacted a ban.

USC is one of 14 centers nationwide to be named as a TCORS. The FDA program was established in 2013 to create a scientific foundation for FDA decisions about tobacco regulations.

“Using data from the web to inform regulatory science is one of the goals for us here at USC moving forward,” Allem said.

The paper, “When a ban really is not a ban: Internet loopholes and Djarum flavoured cigarettes in the USA,” was published June 17, 2015, in the peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control. The research team included John Ayers, San Diego State University; Ben Althouse, The Santa Fe Institute; and Rebecca Williams, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The research was funded by National Cancer Institute (grants 5R01CA169189-02 and T32CA009492).

By Leslie Ridgeway

Article cited:
Allem, J. P., Ayers, J. W., Althouse, B. M., & Williams, R. (2015). When a ban really is not a ban: Internet loopholes and Djarum flavoured cigarettes in the USA. Tobacco Control. Published online June 17, 2015; doi:10.1136/tobaccocontrol-2015-052309