Think clove cigarettes are so six years ago? A new study from Keck School of Medicine of 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, although tobacco vendor websites can be hosted outside of the country that has enacted a ban.

In 2013, the Keck School of Medicine of USC Department of Preventive Medicine became one of 14 academic institutions to establish an NIH-funded TCORS intended to help create the scientific base for decision-making by the FDA on tobacco products.

“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 was published June 17 in the peer-reviewed journal Tobacco Control. The research team included John Ayers of San Diego State University, Ben Althouse of the Santa Fe Institute and Rebecca Williams of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

The research was funded by National Cancer Institute grants.

— Leslie Ridgeway