Wine Wholesalers Rely on Bogus Report to Link Minors, Alcohol & Internet


–No Studies Have Ever Been Published That Address Minors, Alcohol and the Internet

The politics of direct shipping have more to do with money
profits and commerce than anything else. However, the debate over
direct shipping has centered on the potential for the minors to get alcohol
via the Internet.

So much so has this issue been centered around minors that any state
now wishing to open up direct shipping to their residents must show
there is a way to make it extraordinarily difficult, if not impossible,
for minors to receive alcohol via the Internet.

Yet the assumption that many minors are in fact now getting wine
and alcohol via the Internet has no basis in fact
and there is no study
that shows this is actually occurring.
Nevertheless, organizations such
as the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers Association and other like minded
organizations have been suggesting that up to 10% of minors are
receiving alcohol via the Internet and home delivery.

For nearly a decade, while the direct shipping battle has waged,
opponents of direct shipping relied on stings to show that minors could
get alcohol on the Internet. But they had no data or study to show it
was happening outside the context of stings. That is, until the
prestigious National Academy of Sciences published "Reducing Underage
Drinking: A Collective Responsibility (2004)"

This was the study that would allow opponents of direct shipping of wine to suggest that massive numbers of minors were obtaining alcohol via the Internet.

On page 174 of that publication the authors write: "

"Surveys of underage purchase of alcohol over the Internet or through home delivery show that small percentages (10 percent) of young people report obtaining alcohol in this manner."

The Wine and Spirit Wholesalers Association responded to the publishing of this paper and these words with this posting on their website:

"NATIONAL ACADEMY OF SCIENCES REPORTS KIDS BUY ALCOHOL ON THE INTERNET AND THROUGH HOME DELIVERIES, THREAT COULD GROW: A Congressionally-mandated report which examined strategies to reduce and prevent underage drinking, warns that the unregulated direct shipping of alcohol through home delivery and the Internet is a new way for teens to buy alcohol. Fully 10% of young people report obtaining alcohol in this manner"

The problem is, the National Academy of Sciences’ figures are wrong.

The NAS paper cited the figure of 10% of minors getting alcohol via the Internet and home delivery by relying on a study done in 2000 entitled "Alcohol Home Delivery Services: A Source of Alcohol for Underage Drinkers" by Linda Fletcher et al.

The "Fletcher Study" does not use the world "Internet", "Web", "World Wide Web" or "electronic commerce" anywhere in its pages. And there is good reason for this. The paper, based on a survey taken in 1994 and 1995, only looks at home delivery of alcohol from a local retail outlet. The "10% of minors statistic" is taken from this sentence in the Fletcher study:

"Of 12th graders, 10% indicated purchasing alcohol delivered by a store to a home or an individual in the past year."

Opponents of direct shipping are concerned that if alcohol purchases are not monitored and controlled via the three tier system, there is just too much chance that minors can get their hands on alcohol. Yet in this study, the one used by the National Academy of Sciences and eventually by the Wine and Spirit Wholesalers Association, the alcohol minors are getting their hand on is going through Wholesalers hands first.

I spoke with one of the co-authors of the Fletcher Study, Dr. Traci Toomey. She told me, "using the Fletcher study as a basis for claiming minors are getting alcohol via the Internet would be a misinterpretation of the data."

But this isn’t all that Dr. Toomey had to say about the study that led the National Academy of Sciences and thet Wine & Spirit Wholesalers Association and a number of other groups and media to claim that 10% of minors were getting alcohol via the Internet and home delivery. In a paper Dr. Toomey and Dr. Kelli Komro authored in 2004 for the National Academy of Alcohol Abuse  and Alcoholism entitled "Strategies to Prevent Underage Drinking" they point to another problem with the Fletcher study:

"The only published study of teen use of home delivery found that 10 percent of the 12th graders and 7 percent of the 18- to 20-year-olds reported consuming home-delivered alcohol (Fletcher et al. 2000). A limitation of this study is that it did not ask whether it was the underage youth or an adult who had ordered the delivery of alcohol."

When I asked Dr. Toomey to clarify this statement she said, "Basically, we don’t know if minors were getting this alcohol at their front door or if they were taking it out of their parents’ alcohol cabinet."

The National Academy of Science report on underage drinking completely misstated the degree to which minors are obtaining alcohol via the Internet. That mistake led to the the "10% of minors getting alcohol via the Internet" claim showing up in the mainstream media, in testimony before the U.S. Congress, and in briefs filed for the recent U.S. Supreme Court cases.

The fact is, no study has ever been published that shows any degree of minors getting their hands on alcohol via the Internet. Furthermore, this writer has reason to believe that there is an unpublished study that shows the amount of alcohol minors use and that is obtained via the Internet is less than  one-percent.

Though cynical, it’s fair to say that when you are trying to make a point in the public arena, facts are not always the tool one reaches for first. That’s just the way it is. But when you are considering legislation that would hurt in considerable ways small family businesses and when you are arguing before the Supreme Court of the United States and when you are testifying before congress, it’s pretty important and a nod toward responsibility to get the facts right. People’s livelihood is at stake.

I called the Wine & Spirit Wholesalers Association, spoke to Rebbecca in their Communications Department and asked if they wanted to comment on this story prior to it being posted here. They noted they would get back to me if they wanted to. So far, no comment.

It’s important to know if the wholesalers and particularly the WSWA are aware of the contents of the Fletcher Study. If they are then they are willfully using a report they know is wrong. If they are not aware of the contents of the Fletcher study then they should be made aware of it and asked not to refer to any report or paper that uses it to suggest 10% of minors are getting alcohol via the Internet and home delivery. This writer made a member of their staff aware of the bogus nature of the numbers they are citing.

Posted In: Shipping Wine


3 Responses

  1. HugeJ - June 20, 2005

    Stellar detective work, way to bulldog the story.
    Another point you didn’t touch on, how many minors are receiving alcohol that is NOT delivered via mail/internet???

  2. tom - June 20, 2005

    The answer is the the vast majority of alcohol that reaches minors goes through the three tier system, touching the hands of the wholesalers along the way.
    One way to say it is that Wholesalers put more booze in the hands of minors than all the wineries and direct shippers combined.

  3. David - January 21, 2006

    Please keep fighting this fight!!! In Minnesota we just had an incident where an older male bought alcohol for minors and one of the girls ended up dieing because of alcohol poisoning. This is the real threat to underage drinking, not Pinot Noir sales via the Internet. If the Wholesalers have their way, lawmakers will gloss over stories like the one I mention above. How about a bill that steps up the penalties on purchasing for minors. Why don’t wholesalers go after this???
    Keep the blog posts coming on this Tom, you’re efforts have and will pay off.

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