In a lot of cases, they are not getting older friends to buy cigarettes. They are going online.
A simple Internet search for "Buy Cigarettes Online" comes back with more than 6,000 hits. A new study released Tuesday from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill wants to unplug computer tobacco sales.
Web sites that sell tobacco products are like convenience stores, but without a cashier to check IDs. Just choose a brand of cigarette and click on the line that says you're old enough to buy.
"We clicked, and I aged seven years, I guess," said Karen, one of four children ages 11-15 who were part of the UNC study, "because I was able to, at point, buy cigarettes."
The underage participants attempted 83 online cigarette purchases from 55 different sites. They ended up with 1,650 packs delivered to their homes.
Nine Web sites said they would only sell with a photo ID. Only four sales were blocked to the lack of a photo ID.
Dr. Kurt Ribisl of the
UNC School of Public Health
said the children used prepaid credit cards marketed to teens or money orders issued at a post office. Not only did most Internet vendors not follow through with their stated policies, Ribisl said, but delivery services usually did not check for age.
"I think the biggest surprise is that the cigarettes were simply left at the door 86 percent of the time," Ribisl said.
Karen received one of the packages herself.
"I signed with an alias," she said, "and there was no suspicion or anything."
Many of the companies also sent complimentary cigarettes and promotional items such as pens and lighters.
One even sent six free cartons of cigarettes to two of the underage buyers.
Researchers hope their study boosts legislation proposed Tuesday in Congress that would require more rigorous age and identity verification -- not just at the point of ordering, but also at the point of delivery.