Brattleboro-area health worker is systematically building a case against eBay, saying the online seller is not keeping its promise to regulate the sale of nicotine products to minors online. He hopes public pressure will prompt the company to keep its pledge.
Rolf Parker, who works as a tobacco prevention coordinator for the Brattleboro-Area Prevention Coalition, collects screenshots of e-cigarettes and other nicotine products available on eBay, and works with a 17-year-old intern to prove that sellers are still sending the products to minors.
Parker sees online sales as a pathway to addiction at an early age. While research shows that nationally most young people get their nicotine products from friends, relatives, or stores, about 6 percent order them online, Parker said.
“In Vermont, we’ve got excellent compliance from the brick-and-mortar stores” in preventing underage sales, he said. But he noted the age for purchasing those products is 18, and research shows some 18-year-olds sell the products to younger people in high school.
“Shutting that door means raising the age of purchase to 21,” he said. And “online, the store is always open, right outside the kid’s house.”
Parker has support from groups like the Vermont Medical Society, which has made curtailing youth nicotine use a priority in the upcoming legislative session. The group said 34 percent of Vermont high-schoolers have tried the products. The 2017 Youth Behavioral Risk Survey found that 63 percent of Juul users between the age of 15 and 24 didn’t know the devices contain nicotine, the group said.
The Juul device, which is small and easily hidden, and sometimes is styled to look like a flash drive, has been wildly popular with teens and adults. Bloomberg gave the three-year-old San Francisco-based Juul Labs Inc. a $15 billion valuation last summer and said it controls more than 70 percent of the U.S. e-cigarette market. Juul Labs officials themselves have said they’re trying not to attract young people to their product.
The US Food and Drug Administration pledged in April to stop eBay from selling nicotine products online, but the products continue to reappear, sometimes with the names disguised to evade filters. The agency recently contacted eBay to point out several listings for Juul products online, said FDA spokesman Michael Felberbaum on Tuesday.
“We’re thankful for eBay’s swift action to remove the listings and voluntarily implement new measures to prevent new listings from being posted to the web retailer’s site,” Felberbaum said. Told there are still nicotine products on the site, Felberbaum responded, “The FDA is aware of anecdotal reports about online sales of e-cigarette products to minors, and we are very concerned. The FDA has always monitored and will continue to regularly monitor online sales of tobacco products for potential violations of the law.”
“eBay is saying they are following the law,” said Jill Sudhoff-Guerin, policy and communications manager at the Vermont Medical Society. “What we have to do is make sure the laws are implemented. I think the FDA has been quite behind on their regulation.”
Like Parker, Sudhoff-Guerin said the society sees education as the solution.
“A lot of our members are really activated around this,” she said. ”We know that the younger you are when you start with a nicotine product, the more likely you are to be an adult smoker.”
For his part, Parker plans to keep the issue alive by alerting eBay every time he sees a listing that violates the company’s nicotine ban.
“We have filed report after report,” he said. He also noted that eBay, which has publicly stated its policy is not to sell e-cigarettes, states it will sometimes pre-approve nicotine sellers that require a signature when shipping a package.
“I can’t find anybody who doesn’t ship by U.S. standard post, which doesn’t require a signature,” he said. “They’re not even following their own policies. They’re shipping without requiring a signature. We’ve done this, of course; it just shows up at your house.”
eBay sellers also send the intern, Olivia Moore, advertisements because she browsed nicotine products on eBay while working with Parker. Moore is a student at Leland and Gray High School in Townshend.
“They send them to her high school account,” he said.
Parker is encouraging other people to take screenshots and post them on social media with the goal of spurring the FDA into action. The group’s own Facebook page, called Juulie’s Army, was recently rendered inoperable; he doesn’t know why. The two have started a new Facebook page called Get J.O.E. where users can post their screenshots.
“We’re trying to raise public concern,” he said. “Regulatory action – we can’t make that happen. But we can drag this into the sunlight and other people can join us in doing so.”