Tobacco, alcohol, gambling
industries find underage Internet client base
By John Cockroft (September
While doing research
for a paper at a Christian college, 19-year-old Luke came across
an Internet pop-up ad for a free prize. He clicked on it, and soon
was introduced to a barrage of online gambling opportunities. His
new credit card and freedom away from home led Luke down an exhilarating
path until, weeks later, he found himself thousands of dollars in
debt, afraid to go home for Thanksgiving.
Steve and his high school
classmates couldnt wait for his parents to leave for a weekend
church conference. Steve, 16, had his dads credit card number,
and within hours of his parents departure, a delivery truck
from a local grocery store brought four 12-packs of imported beer
to the front door that had been ordered via the Internet. The delivery
driver merely asked for a signature on the charge slip. Steve could
never pull such a stunt in a store, but a legal loophole made his
venture a breeze over the Internet.
Though these accounts
are composites of actual incidents, the convenience of the Internet
for consumers is creating a growing concern among lawmakers and
parents. Its not just online pornography that threatens families.
Children now have access to cigarettes, alcohol and casinos, industries
that arent regulated on how they sell to minors. Youngsters
can falsify age information if they have access to their parents
A recent ConsumerAffairs.com
survey of 88 tobacco Web sites found only 8 percent required proof
of legal age for purchases, and only one major delivery service
attempted to verify the age of a cigarette package recipient.
The alcohol industry
is also fraught with online legal loopholes. "In addition to
underage access, alcohol shipped across state lines avoids state
taxes," Greg Bloss of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse
and Alcoholism in Rockville, Md., told PE Report.
Ed Looney, executive
director of the Council on Compulsive Gambling in Hamilton, N.J.,
says Internet gambling increased 89 percent last year. The first
gambling Web site started in 1995. Now there are nearly 2,000, many
of them offshore to avoid U.S. regulation. A University of Connecticut
Health Center study reports that 74 percent of Internet gamblers
were either problematic or pathological in the extent of their addiction.
Many underage gambling
customers have their own credit cards. Sachin Jain, a 22-year-old
college student from Newark, Del., was barely out of high school
when he began four years of Internet gambling.
After spending up to
three hours a day involved in online sports gambling, placing bets
between $50 and $150, he lost nearly $10,000 before his parents
forced him to seek counseling. "The attraction was being able
to bet on anything from soccer to golf to tennis," he says.
"It got out of control."
"We are losing a
generation of young people," Looney says. "The addiction
rate among students is two or three times higher than adults. They
see government-sanctioned lotteries, so they dont think theres
anything wrong with gambling."
Dr. Ken Winters at the
University of Minnesota says youth are at four times the risk of
adults for developing pathological gambling patterns. The National
Gambling Impact Study Commission also links pathological gambling
to alcohol and drug use, truancy, low grades and illegal activities
to finance gambling. The Federal Trade Commission cites the combination
of social isolation
and credit use as risk factors for chronic online gambling, compounded
by the fact that many minors access gambling Web sites easily and
are exposed to online gambling ads on non-gambling sites.
Illegal online activity
by minors is partially a result of the deterioration of the family,
says Jim Harris, assistant professor of counseling and family therapy
at Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Mo.
"Children are often
left unsupervised to grapple with moral decisions with no assistance
from our crumbling value system," Harris says. "People
seem to want shortcuts to a remedy, which propels online corruption.
In times spent interacting with our children we can teach moral
problem solving and the childs worth in Gods eyes."
To prevent illegal underage
activity, accountability is key. "The only way to safeguard
against illegal Internet sales to minors is over a counter, where
a clerk can be held responsible," says Kerry Messer, president
of the Missouri Family Network in Festus, Mo., a faith-based ministry
defending and promoting biblical principles in public policy development.
However, Dr. Howard Shaffer,
director of the Harvard Medical School Division on Addictions, says
minors who falsify age information to obtain tobacco and alcohol
or gamble online would also do so offline. "The Internet is
a reflection of our society," Shaffer told PE Report. "Parents
need to be involved in the lives of their children. When that happens,
children have fewer problems."
Some say limiting access
is necessary to slow a growing problem. Focus on the Family and
other groups advocate making online alcohol, tobacco and gambling
illegal. Messer also says the federal government has authority to
regulate interstate commerce, and therefore has the responsibility
to prohibit minors from using phone lines via the Internet for gambling
or buying illegal products.
be second-mile citizens, doing whatever it takes to promote moral
behavior," Messer says. "To act like there is no viable
solution is skirting our responsibility. Christians shouldnt
allow lawmakers to shrug off this issue."