MACKOWIAC: Online Accessibility, Age Verification Aid Alternative Nicotine Market

The United States has seen significant, but important changes in tobacco policy over the past several years. The minimum legal age to purchase tobacco products was increased last year for the first time in 40 years, from 18 to 21. Within the last two years, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has banned a whole host of flavored tobacco products, including a recent proposal to prohibit menthol cigarettes, and has announced plans to issue a rule reducing the nicotine level in cigarettes.

With all these changes, many of the nation’s 30 million adult smokers will be looking for less harmful alternatives. Unfortunately, the FDA has been slow to approve the Premarket Tobacco Applications for many of the alternative products that will give smokers an offramp.

Smokers will seek less harmful alternatives, making it pivotal that companies are able to offer access to and information regarding available products. The online marketplace is key to educating consumers who may not otherwise be aware of their alternatives.

Unbeknownst to many smokers, there are a variety of tobacco-free oral nicotine products available online, including pouches, gum, and lozenges. These products remove a harmful part of smoking—combustion—while still addressing nicotine cravings. Unfortunately, many current smokers aren’t aware of the options available, and the FDA is hesitant to take a harm reduction approach to nicotine products, despite its stance in favor of harm reduction on other addictive substances like opioids.

While some regulators are concerned about the ability to age verify online orders of these nicotine products, technology has made it as secure—if not more so—than purchasing these products at a retail location.

Nicokick, for example, one of the largest online retailers of tobacco free oral nicotine pouches and other products, has implemented multiple layers of age verification to ensure only consumers of legal age can make purchases. For example, after submitting identifying information, Nicokick through third-party service AgeChecker.Net verifies the provided information towards public records for authentication. If there aren’t adequate public records to confirm the customer’s identity, they may have to submit a selfie with their government-issued ID to confirm they are of age. Some states even require a legal adult to sign for their package upon delivery.

“Every year, we conduct millions of verifications for companies looking to keep their product out of the hands of minors,” AgeChecker.Net Vice President Matt Fields said. “In an ever-changing landscape of compliance requirements, we work around the clock to meet the highest regulatory standards and are constantly improving our service to help keep us ahead of the regulatory curve.”

Purchasing online also limits the exposure to marketing of tobacco products (like cigarettes), which the U.S. has banned from online purchase. This is far different from walking into a convenience store or gas station, where tobacco products and associated ads are often on full display, even towards people of non legal age. Amid concerns of youth smoking and tobacco companies targeting underage consumers, online purchasing provides a secure alternative.

Online retailers are also able to limit and control order sizes to prevent consumers from buying large quantities to resell. This will help prevent issues like the teen vaping epidemic, when 18-year-olds who were still in high school were able to purchase vapes in large quantities to pass around to their schoolmates.

To convert smokers to less harmful products, attractive alternatives need to be allowed on the market, which includes flavored tobacco. As regulators continue to crackdown on these products amid youth vaping concerns, online purchasing offers the security of age verification and gives customers additional product information prior to making a purchase.

We cannot give up on smokers, particularly as the FDA continues to crackdown on traditional nicotine products. A robust online marketplace for alternative products is key to helping Americans choose less harmful products without turning to an illegal and dangerous black market. Companies like Nicokick are leading the way for nicotine alternatives and it is key the FDA works to efficiently approve safe alternative products that are proven to save lives.

Matt Mackowiak is the president of Potomac Strategy Group, a Republican consultant, a Bush administration and Bush-Cheney re-election campaign veteran and former press secretary to two U.S. senators.

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