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Thoughts on Age Verification

Much of the talk about the future of electronic cigarettes hinges on the question of age verification for online purchases. Given the virtual certainty that sale of e-cigs to minors will one day be banned everywhere (as well it should, and as everyone in the industry wants it to be, except for the Lung Association), major problems are expected to arise for online sellers, now a major chunk of the market.

Reuters reports that "some e-cigarette companies are already positioning themselves for a more restrictive environment. LOGIC Technology, for one, expects advertising, flavors and online sales to be banned or severely restricted." This is because age verification for online purchases is deemed (there's that word again!) an insurmountable challenge.

Currently, the standard method of age verification at e-cig websites consists of asking underage people to go away. If you think this is effective, let me put you in touch with our Central Sahara real estate division to talk about a purchase of beachfront property.

But to outlaw online sales could be an unwarranted response to this problem. It just might be solvable with less extreme measures. Most internet watchers who are concerned about policies protecting youth are thinking about sites where users present themselves with profiles, including real or false ages, in the hope of interacting with other users. Adults may pose as children in the hope of involving nubile youngsters in nefarious goings-on, and conversely, children may present themselves as adults and end up seeing things not meant for their tender eyes. Regulators who comment on these issues are absolutely right in saying that this kind of thing is virtually impossible to detect and stop. And it's a darn shame!

But an online purchase is a rather different thing. When I make an online purchase, I have to give a credit or debit card number, and also a shorter verification number from the back. What would prevent the inclusion, on the online shopping cart, of an age verification card number? In the auto-mad US this would almost always be a driver's license number (although that is changing in some major urban areas, where having a car doesn't make a lot of sense).

In most other countries of the world, this would be a passport number or some other kind of citizen ID. In any case, some kind of age-verifying ID card is pretty much a universal thing these days, at least for anyone who would be in the market for buying an electronic cigarette.

Not good enough? How about requiring an online photo of the card, a selfie, or a jpeg image taken from a webcam, or uploaded from a digital camera? That would have the added advantage of verifying the shipping address as well (since the address would be on the ID card), and making sure it is the address of the adult buying the product. There are even websites where one verifies one's identity by taking a selfie in a mirror, holding a piece of paper with one's e-mail address written on it, or holding up one's ID card, or both.

Of course a person could let a minor use his or her ID for an illegal purchase, but that would be a criminal act, and there would be your address to show you'd done it. A crime worthy of the Darwin Awards, as you're being led off in handcuffs.

Come on, people! We can solve this online age-verification problem for sale of e-cigarettes, short of banning the sale altogether. Why use a sledge-hammer for a task that needs only a screwdriver?