The Tools of Farce

It has been reported that the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill has secured a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson foundation to investigate "how easy it is to order alcohol from the Web." I think this is a good idea as long as the researchers in charge actually have the intention of investigating something instead of creating publicity in pursuit of advocating something.

If the question they want to answer is "how easy is it to order alcohol on the web" I can save the RWJ Foundation a great deal of money. It's very easy. In fact, it's only slightly more difficult than it is for a minor to walk into a store and put a bottle of wine on the counter and attempt to walk of out the store with it—these two things are identical.

The real question that should be asked and researched is how easy is it for minors to get their hands on a bottle of wine through an Internet transaction, not how easy is it to order it.

Upon hearing about this study, the News-Recorder, in an editorial, made this stunning comment that indicates at least that the editorial board of that newspaper has no clue what it was it is writing about:

"On some Web sites, underage purchasers need only click on a statement
saying they're at least age 21 to set the wheels in motion. Shipments
arrive, no questions asked."

Of course, a number of questions are asked, not the least of which are: "Can I see your ID" when the Fed EX and UPS drivers arrive at the door with the ordered wine.

The unfortunate part about this study is that it appears that the conclusion is in the bag without any study ever having been conducted:

"They don't do enough to keep underage people from buying," said Laura
Borders, 18, a N.C. School of Science and Mathematics senior who's
doing a preliminary survey of sites for the project."

Why am I not surprised that an 18 year old freshman doesn't understand that the purpose of research is to reveal the truth, rather than to approach research with the "truth" already predetermined? With this being the attitude the actual researchers are bringing to the project before it ever begins, is there any reason to believe that it will have any validity at all?

But then there are the folks who should actually know better but who apparently have find themselves in a position of authority without the good sense to go with it:

"Even if relatively few minors are ordering beer, wine or liquor online,
the practice should be shut down before it grows, said Traci L. Toomey,
associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota
School of Public Health. As crackdowns on selling beer and booze to
minors in convenience stores and other bricks-and-mortar venues
continue, online sources may get more underage traffic, Toomey said."

If Ms. Toomey had the courage of her apparent convictions, she'd be calling for the shutting down of the sale of alcohol in brick and mortar stores since far more minors obtain alcohol through them than those who order it online.

 I've see the kind of research Ms. Toomey has done with regard to minors access to alcohol. The reason she states "even if relatively few minors are ordering beer, wine or liquor online…" is because her very own research shows that online sales are the most insignificant sources of minors' access points to alcohol.

What's unfortunate about Ms. Toomey's position is that it contradicts her own statements. Ms Toomey is a Co-Author of a 2000 study that she herself said could not be used to determine that alcohol was being obtained by minors on the Internet. How do I know this? I spoke with her about it in 2005. The study was called, "Alcohol Home Delivery Services: A Source of Alcohol for Underage Drinkers" and she worked on it with another researcher named Linda Fletcher.

Now it so happens that this 2000 study Ms. Toomey was responsible for was used in a National Academy of Sciences paper entitled "Reducing Underage
Drinking: A Collective Responsibility (2004)"

On page 174 of that publication the authors of the NAS paper 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 NAS got their information from the 2000 study that Ms. Toomey worked on. The wholesalers picked up on this quote in the NAS paper and made very loud claims that direct shipping of wine had been proven to be unsafe. But guess what. The 2000 study that Ms. Toomey worked on never mentioned the words "Web", "Internet" or "online". And when I asked Ms. Toomey about the conclusions being drawn from her study by the National Academy of Sciences and the alcohol distributors who don't like losing money to direct shipping, she told me this:

"using the Fletcher study as a basis for claiming minors are
getting alcohol via the Internet would be a misinterpretation of the

Ms. Toomey is a tool.

And I fear that those conducting the study at the University of North Carolina are tools also.

A study to determine the degree to which minors ARE OBTAINING alcohol from direct shipping would be a good idea. A study to determine if minors CAN ORDER alcohol online is akin to funding a study to discover if minors WANT to obtain alcohol. The former is a legitimate use of resources. The latter is a farce.

22 Responses

  1. Joel Vincent - January 14, 2009

    University researchers can’t be that dumb can they? For online sales, the delivery service has the final say. The only reason the store has to check in brick-and-mortar is because they are making the handoff. But I am stating the obvious (or at least I thought it was).
    Why don’t they do that study with Porn? The websites actually DELIVER porn to the user. And all a kid needs to do is say “yeah, I’m 18, let me see the good stuff” and we’re done. But then they get into censorship issues and free speech, I guess.

  2. Scott - January 14, 2009

    While I agree that more minors acquire alcoholic beverages at a brick and mortar store than do through internet sales, that doesn’t mean that it’s easier to do so (as you say). I mean, it’s easier to ride the bus or subway than drive oneself in a car, but that doesn’t mean that it’s more common.
    UPS and Fed Ex delivery persons do not ask for ID, and the companies themselves want no part of age verification to make a delivery. Typically, they will leave the package by the back door (even if it’s clearly marked that an adult must sign for the package). I will give you that many whose interests are compromised by the potential of internet alcohol sales make too much of this argument, but you are lying to all of us and to yourself if you don’t recognize that it will make it easier and less risky for minors to get alcohol in this way.
    Just be fair, that’s all. Everything is alwaya all or nothing with you when it comes to this subject.

  3. Tom Wark - January 14, 2009

    With respect, you are wrong. I personally sign for wine on a regular basis when it is delivered by Fedex and UPS. Wineries and retailers PAY fed ex a fee to get a signature.

  4. Dylan - January 14, 2009

    When it comes to the subject of the actual study, I agree the focus should be data on successful receipt of alcohol by minors through online transaction. I can’t say for sure what the numbers would be, I’m not an expert on any of this. However, I would venture to say that there is a higher rate of purchases by minors online, compared to those that actually completed the physical transaction.
    Question for Tom, as I’m unfamiliar with the deliveries of wines through Fedex or UPS: What happens to the package in the case that the required adult (aged over 21) is not available to sign for the package? Is it put in holding somewhere? How long is it held?

  5. JohnLopresti - January 14, 2009

    It took only a few visits in a south Europe country to be accustomed to families bringing children of all ages on the evening promenade, into the family cantina, there being no age limits for imbibing or visiting the venue. The decor was bland cafeteria. The actual music was from a jukebox. The family aspect provided a firm sensibility that chaperoning was a strong custom. But the whole wine topic was a nonissue.
    I can see the student’s purpose at UNC, however; I think learning math equations, and studying particle physics, likely require sober time during homework elaboration. But kids can get misdirected and ennui sets in, some places in NC.
    I could imagine a different structuring of the study: infiltrating FedEx and UPS with double agents who would be lax about the signature taking; then the feds auditing the employer for sensitivity of monitoring of its drivers. It seems that Homeland Security probably has some database, into which FedEx and UPS could port realtime, to corroborate age and match signatures. UNC has some wonderful goings on, despite the study’s patent flaws.

  6. Kevin - January 14, 2009

    Tom: FedEx or UPS will not deliver unless someone of age signs for the package. The wineries are paying for this service and I have never heard of FedEx or UPS not carrying through with it. My understanding is that FedEx (or UPS) will hold the package for a short period of time and attempt redelivery — much in the same way with a standard package.
    On the broader issue of the study, I agree that the study must focus on the closing of the transaction. Anyone can order, but unless you are over 21 you will not be able to receive it. Moreover, HHS did a study a few years back (here: that has some interesting data on how kids get alcohol (see pages 38 – 40). New Jersey is facing opposition to direct shipment and many of these same arguments are being raised — I blogged about it and some of the comments from opponents are jaw-dropping.

  7. Kevin - January 14, 2009

    Oops. The referenced study is here: (although I also recommend the Bevlaw blog)! Sorry for the mixup.

  8. tish - January 15, 2009

    I get wine shipments via Fedex and UPS frequently. Know the drivers well. And they know I have teenage kids. They NEVER EVER leave a package unless my wife or I are there to sign for it.
    Let them go ahead and do this survey. If it gets a lot of play and sensible people will realize what a farce it is.

  9. Thomas Pellechia - January 15, 2009

    “The unfortunate part about this study is that it appears that the conclusion is in the bag without any study ever having been conducted”
    That says it all. Always follow the money (and you’ll find the agenda).
    The Robert Woods Foundation is as known as CSPI for an insistent anti-alcohol march in the guise of “public interest.”
    What pisses me off more than anything is that many news outlets don’t dig into these kinds of activities but instead, they read and report from the press releases.

  10. Thomas Pellechia - January 15, 2009

    If the wine industry were to rely on the good will of sensible people, it would not only be the rare industry to do so, it would have to spend an awful lot of money trying to locate those people in America.
    That’s exactly why the press reaction to these things bothers me so much. Incomplete news reporting has made a mess of determining what’s real and what’s not–it’s also contributed to the apparent lack of sensible thinking.

  11. Joe Dressner - January 15, 2009

    Why don’t you lobby to change the legal drinking age to 18. Wouldn’t that make more sense?

  12. Tom Wark - January 15, 2009

    It’s a good idea. But better minds than mine are already on the case.

  13. Thomas Pellechia - January 16, 2009

    Why don’t you lobby to change the legal drinking age to 18. Wouldn’t that make more sense?
    You mean it isn’t? I could be arrested for what I did last night…

  14. mydailywine - January 16, 2009

    I agree that they should run ‘stings’ (aka research projects)on both the online and retail channels simultaneously.
    The good old boys of distribution will not give up any market share without a drawn out and dirty fight.

  15. greg mueller - January 16, 2009

    A $400,000 boondoggle.

  16. Judd Wallenbrock - January 16, 2009

    Great post, Tom, guaranteed to stir up comments. So I’ll chime in. I bought alcohol before I was 21 (shame!)…well, actually, I didn’t buy it…the guy over 21 I gave the money to in front of the store bought it. He was my ‘mule’, my delivery vehicle. I guess that is what some would consider Fedex & UPS & I agree with all those saying what a great job they are doing. But I also think that the barrier to entry for wineries into states who WANT to use the traditional 3-tier network is just as critical. No doubt the distributor network is the most efficient (current) method to deliver wine to the consumers, but their stranglehold on delivery keeps small wineries out of the market altogether, leaving them no option but the internet. And if a consumer can’t order over the internet, and cannot get the wine at a store, it would appear the only way to buy a particular wine is to fly to California and buy it there. Hmmm. As an analogy, if I wanted to watch a movie filmed in NY, I could only watch it there? Not sure if that works as an example, but it does appear that small wineries are blocked from traditional distribution & from direct selling — effectively putting them out of business. Can’t be good for anyone.

  17. Matt - January 16, 2009

    Just another thought: I used to work for FedEx about 10 years ago and, at least at that time they didn’t really want to be in the alcohol delivery business. They don’t make any real money on it and to them it is only a hassle. Assuming UPS is the same way and would jump on the band wagon if/when the time came, these kinds of “studies” and pressure from the ultra-right wingers could get these guys to throw in the towel leaving no one to deliver.

  18. Thomas Pellechia - January 17, 2009

    UPS may leave things up to local shipping office discretion.
    When I operated a winery, we had to select the UPS office to ship from, as one or two in the region simply refused to accept packages from wineries.
    In one of the offices, the manager was evangelical and anti-alcohol.

  19. fullsteam - January 20, 2009

    What’s worse is the lazy reporting from sites like this:
    Headline: “Internet alcohol sales to minors on the rise.”
    I wrote to the television station criticizing them for their sloppy, incorrect headline — I saw from my blog stats that they had received my posting, but they never approved it for public viewing.
    The problem, of course, is that many people scan headlines and fail to scour the contents. The headline is patently incorrect; the potential for damage considerable.

  20. fullsteam - January 20, 2009

    and now the page is “not found.” (Just so you don’t think the link above is incorrect.)

  21. fullsteam - January 20, 2009

    and would you look at that. Story is now “Internet alcohol sales too easy for minors?”
    Good for them. Took two posts, but they did it. As for the study itself, I agree entirely with your concerns and conclusions. The last paragraph captures it perfectly.

  22. Chuck Cowdery - January 22, 2009

    This also shows what happens when so-called journalists just retype press releases.

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