Minors Don’t Buy Alcohol Online

OilMinors Don't Buy Alcohol On-line.

And yet, this fundamental fact has gone unnoticed in the wake of a recently released study that looks at minors access to alcohol conducted by Chapel Hill North Carolina and funded by the Robert Woods Johnson Foundation.

While this study shows that 8 students attempting to buy wine from 100 unknown on-line vendors demonstrated that 48 out of 100 orders were delivered, the study itself and the media coverage that has followed somehow failed to mentioned that the problem of minors buying alcohol on-line is no problem at all.

First the facts.

According to a study done by Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD)—not exactly a pro-alcohol organization—minors said they obtain their alcohol in the following way:

1. From a parent, guardian or family member who is 21 or older (26 percent)

2. From someone 21 or older who is not related to the teen (25 percent)

3. From someone under 21 who is not related to the teen (22 percent)

4. Took it from home (10 percent)

5. Took it from someone else’s home (5 percent)

Please note that "online" doesn't even make it on the list.

Yet, the lead researcher for the Chapel Hill study, Rebecca Williams, had this to say in an interview with ABC News:

"The study provides evidence that illegal alcohol sales are a significant problem."

In fact this study provides no such evidence. Rather, the study shows that under certain circumstances, when not worried about getting caught (students ordering wine were given immunity from prosecution) and when parents are told about the experiment and not a deterrent, sometimes minors can get alcohol delivered. There is nothing about this information that suggests any evidence of "illegal alcohol sales" being a "significant problem".

In fact, no member of law enforcement and no member of the alcohol regulatory community has ever even suggested that on-line sales of alcohol to minors presents any existential problem whatsoever.

All this leads us to believe that just like snake oil was never really meant as a means of curing anything, this study was not meant to actually illuminate the reality of how minors interact with sources of on-line wine sellers.

It should also be noted that this new study showed that minors attempting to obtain alcohol on-line were no more successful at it than when they tried to obtain alcohol from a brick and mortar location. When you factor in the huge barriers to obtaining alcohol on-line that minors face, it becomes apparent why minors are not using on-line sources to obtain alcohol. Consider this scenario:

Little Pete wants to obtain some Chardonnay for his weekend drinking with friends. First, we have to assume that Pete thinks ahead far enough to order the wine a good week to two weeks in advance and we have to assume that Pete wants to drink Chardonnay.

Pete must first either have his own or must steal a credit card to make the purchase on-line. Next, Pete must get through any on-line age verification systems on-line. Finally, Pete must have the extra money to pay not only for the wine but for the shipping of the wine and he must find a way to hide this transaction if the credit card is not his.

If Pete is a long term thinker, if he does like Chardonnay, if he does have or has stolen a credit card and if he is confident the transaction will not come to the attention of his parents, he must then be ready to be at the door in a week or two to meet the driver that delivers the wine. If Pete is at home, he needs to make sure he answers the door and his parents don't and even then he must convince the driver he is over 21 with a fake idea or some fast talking or with the hopes the driver hasn't been well trained or is somewhat dull.

On the other hand, Pete could call his friend, Carole, who is 21 years old, and ask her to simply go down to the store and buy him some beer. The other option is sneak the stuff out of the parents liquor cabinet while they aren't around.

No….Minors don't buy wine on-line.

Of particular concern is another portion of the Chapel Hill research that seems to indicate that the researchers have an agenda. Toward the end of the discussion part of the paper they note that by "working at the federal level to cut off vendors from their established shipping and payment-processing partners could, as it did with ICVs (Internet Cigarette Vendors), lead to an increase in vendors going out of business and a substantial decrease in vendors using banned shippers and payment processors."

I have a hard time believing that the administration at North Carolina at Chapel Hill would endorse a study that concludes actions that could "lead to an increase in vendors going out of business".

To address the fact that in the Chapel Hill study it was determined that 48 of 100 orders placed by minors did actually occur, we can offer some happy news: decreasing this number is a pretty simple process that requires no legislation, no hearings, no hyperbolic claims of an epidemic and no outrageous claims by researchers. It merely takes some additional training in ID checking by common carriers and the continued increase in use of on-line age verification services.

What we have here, in this study, is evidence that a potential problem does not exist and to the extent that minors can order wine on-line, their ability to actually get it is easily diminished by some simple tasks.

Unfortunately, this study will be used and abused by those who see on-line wine purchasing as a form of competition they do not like and as a means to burnish resumes by appearing to have uncovered a problem that does not exist.

22 Responses

  1. Christian Miller - May 8, 2012

    Well put; the very design of the study removed some of the major barriers (timing, presence of parents in the household, credit card paper trail, etc.) to minors ordering wine online. It is the equivalent of saying wild yeast fermentations cause flawed wine, based on a trial that used high pH grapes and no SO2 was added.

  2. Thomas Pellechia - May 9, 2012

    …and the study will be reported by journalists with no understanding or training in research studies and how they should be read, not to mention how they are often misread to promote an agenda.
    Mass ignorance is the easiest cultural condition to manipulate.

  3. Bob Rossi - May 9, 2012

    Thank you for putting into words what I’ve always felt about on-line alcohol buying by minors: it can’t possibly be a problem. It’s just so absurd that I’m amazed that a study even got funded. What a waste of money and time.

  4. John Kelly - May 9, 2012

    @Rossi it was not a waste of money and time to the backers of the agenda.
    You know, if I were younger and more enterprising I would open a whole series of little wine stores all over the country. The stores would have tiny footprints and no inventory to speak of, but would function as neighborhood delivery points for online wine orders. Customers buy from wineries online at full retail, wineries ship the wine to the pickup point, the store collects the customer’s money and all local taxes, in the process verifying the age of the purchaser, and the store remits the wholesale price back to the winery. Poof. No compliance issues for the producer, increased and verifiable State and local tax revenue (not to mention increased local employment and decreased retail vacancy) and all the normal barriers to minors buying expensive wine. Best of all, no wholesaler monopolies – producers derive full benefit form all the money and effort they put in to build their own brands. I think I ‘d call it “Drop In The Bucket.”
    Too bad there are so few States where I can ship direct to a retailer. Short-sighted on the part of State lawmakers, perhaps. Or maybe they all really are bought and paid for by the dinosaurs at the WSWA.

  5. Jen - May 9, 2012

    “Or maybe they all really are bought and paid for by the dinosaurs at the WSWA”

  6. Tom Wark - May 9, 2012

    This really isn’t being driven by industry members such as wholesalers. The authors of the research, with the help of the notoriously anti-alcohol Robert Woods Johnson Foundation, have pursued this on their own. However, if you read the study closely, you can see there is a decided anti-alcohol bias in the study.

  7. Matt | ThirstyBert - May 9, 2012

    Well written Tom. The study was commissioned with a clear agenda and its “findings” are nothing but propaganda and scare-mongering. It will be a real shame if the media takes it at face value and reports it as the authors intended.

  8. Joel Goldberg - May 9, 2012

    While understanding your focus on online sales, Tom, what’s also notable is that minors who buy alcohol for themselves — from any source whatever — doesn’t make the list. Seems like the emphasis that law enforcement and anti-alcohol groups put on stores selling alcohol to minors is more about going after the easy, headline-grabbing target rather than the relevant (but much harder to police) ones.

  9. SVBWine - May 9, 2012

    As you are I’m sure aware, I’ve no anti-alcohol bias. While I appreciate the read if for no other reason that it exposes what seems to be bias, there are parts of the research that deserve attention by on-line retailers. Specifically in the conclusions:
    1) Of the 100 orders placed by the underage buyers,
    45% were successfully received
    2) Most vendors (59%) used weak, if any, age verification at the point of order, and, of 45 successful orders, 23 (51%) used none.
    3) Age verification at delivery was inconsistently conducted and, when attempted, failed about half of the time.
    We are a regulated industry. I can’t dispute the findings about delivery of alcohol and the lack of process by on-line retailers despite the difference between the real risks (few) and perceived risk (many) in minors purchasing wine on-line.
    Again, I appreciate the research and read from you as always. I hope the on-line retailers are paying attention to the findings though and will work to improve their processes. The consequence of not doing that isn’t another report that is sensationalized or biased; its a foothold for the Wholesale lobby to point to a need for additional legislation such as is highlighted in red in your article above.
    Rob McMillan
    Silicon Valley Bank

  10. Tom Wark - May 9, 2012

    Hey there Rob…
    It should be noted that we have no idea who wines were ordered from, whether online retailers, online TPP or Wineries. The study does not say.
    But I hear you. For me the real problem is that the substance and meaning of this study is being misconstrued to suggest that minors are in fact buying wine online. They are not. They have not. And they will not for all the reasons we understand. But that’s not the message being delivered out the study.
    The other good news is that any deficiency at the point of purchase on line as well as with delivery is easily fixed. That too goes unsaid in the study.
    Thanks a bunch for commenting!

  11. Tony the Wine Guy - May 9, 2012

    PRECISELY the point that I’ve explained for years, Tom.
    At least twenty five years’ worth of studies confirm the simple declarative statement, “Minors don’t buy wine online.”
    In the dark ages, they didn’t buy it over the telephone or through the U.S. Mail either.
    The scenario describing Little Pete is proven time and again.
    Pete’s evil friends might try to steal alcohol from a delivery truck, and WSWA used to distribute materials with a similar scenario that reminded all of us to keep our trucks secured.

  12. Scott - May 9, 2012

    It’s fun to see you try to spin-control these findings. Whether or not minors see the internet as a way to access alcohol is one point. Maybe they don’t. But the important point here is that on-line alcohol retailers don’t care whether they sell to minors or adults because they aren’t part of the community where the alcohol is sold, and that state where the product is received can’t shut them down for flouting the rules.
    Every time this comes up, defenders of online interstate alcohol sales insist that UPS and FedEx and the Postal Service require face-to-face verification and signature for alcohol delivery. It’s a ridiculous falsehood and one you should really stop trying to perpetrate for the sake of your own (very shaky) credibility. Or you can just continue not allowing yourself to be slowed down by things like facts.

  13. Ken Hoglund - May 9, 2012

    For a point of reference, I live in NC and have bought wine on-line, as well as belong to an NC winery’s wine club with quarterly shipments. Since we are taking care of an elderly relative, we live down the street from our “legal” address, but our relatively adult kids (one in college and under 21; one out and over 21) live in the house. UPS and FedEx Ground are the carriers: neither have released wine shipments unless (1) the over 21 child signed or (2) they brought the shipment down the street to me and I signed. I have been very impressed with the carriers’ professionalism and adherence to the law.
    BTW, the one child over 21 paid (with his own money) for a fake id that is undetectable and used it prior to coming of age (we found out years after the fact). You are spot on in asserting under-age drinkers are not going to obtain wines through the internet: it’s become too easy to do so with fake id’s.

  14. Tom Wark - May 9, 2012

    It’s hard to measure the degree of absurdity in your statement. But let me give it a shot anyway.
    Many Out of state retailers and wineries both deploy age verification systems. Many others utilize the services of age verification systems. Out of state retailers and wineries have testified in front of government committees and asked them to pass legislation imposing fines if they sell wine to minors. Retailers have issued numerous letters to state government committees, lawmakers and media ask that regulations be put in place to fine them if they sell wine to minors. Furthermore, given that minors don’t buy wine on line, there is no reason to indulge that market. Finally, both retailers and wineries all pay common carriers to obtain a signature on each shipment. Why would they do that if they didn’t care?
    Then there is the issue of proximity that you raise. If one’s proximity to the community in which the wine is sold is a factor in determining whether wine will be sold to minors (assuming they’d want to buy any) then you’d expect brick and mortar stores to be especially bereft of sales to minors. And yet the overwhelming majority of wine sold to minors is sold at brick and mortar stores. How could this be he case given your “proximity argument”?
    As for Fed Ex and UPS (The postal service does not deliver alcohol) both require as a matter of policy and business practices that any alcohol shipped must only be delivered after a signature is obtained. So that part of your argument is out.
    As I said, the absurdity of your statement is hard to measure. I apologize for saying that. It was wrong. I’ve clearly measured it precisely: It’s 100% absurd.

  15. John Kelly - May 10, 2012

    Is “Scott” a Craig Wolf in sheep’s clothing? Inquiring minds want to know…
    I’d like to point out that we are all part of a larger community, and I DO care who I sell to. It’s just Scott I don’t care about.

  16. Bob Davis - May 10, 2012

    I’ve watched the debate on this subject for over a decade. And every time one of these “studies” comes out there is usually someone with some vested interest behind it. Someone needs to look at the funding sources of this study.

  17. A Different Scott - May 10, 2012

    If I were a minor who though far enough in advance to contemplate purchasing wine over the net, I’d also contemplate making it myself. Should we start checking IDs at the produce section of the local market?

  18. Scott - May 10, 2012

    Sorry if I’m being absurd again, but didn’t the study find that 48% of orders placed by minors in this study were delivered? I’m sorry if I’m misunderstanding what this study found, but apparently all the handwringing and requests for fines by the online retailers aren’t working. It’s easy to say we’re serious about following the law and please punish us if you catch us breaking it, meanwhile intentionally ignoring the possibility that somebody might lie about their age. And John Kelly, I’m glad you care about who you sell to, but what about the 48% of online retailers who apparently don’t? I can drive safely at 95 mph, so maybe we don’t need speed limits. Talk about absurd….
    As far as your question goes Tom, as to why online retailers would put on their song and dance about compliance if they really don’t care about this, here’s your answer. Maybe defenders of the three-tier system aren’t the only ones willing to go to great lengths to obfuscate the truth and advance their agenda.
    Also, what I’m referring to regarding being part of a community has nothing to do with proximity as you try to spin and twist it. I mean citizens who pay taxes, work, and spend their money in the communities where they work and live and raise their children do and should have the right to decide who can sell alcohol there and how they can do it. And those brick-and-mortar retailers who live and work in those communities and who are licensed by same may choose to break the rules and sell to minors, but they are a lot easier to identify, punish, and shut down if necessary.
    When it comes to absurdity, I think you wear the robe and crown in this discussion. Your argument seems to be that since online is not a common place for minors to seek alcohol, then who really cares if the online retailers willingly ignore whether their customer is of age. And oh yeah, my apologies for calling your arguments absurd also….

  19. A Reader - May 11, 2012

    Has it occurred to you that “Online” is not on the list of youth’s sources of alcohol because it wasn’t included as an option on the survey? National government and research surveys of youth’s sources of alcohol to date have not included Internet as an option. If you don’t ask it, they can’t answer it. This doesn’t mean that minors don’t buy alcohol online. A 2006 survey funded by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America found that 2% of US Teens (551,000) reported having bought online, and 12% (3.1 million) reported having a friend who’d bought online. Given the funding source, the WSWA study MAY be biased, but it does show that CLEARLY minors ARE buying online.
    Oh, and for those who question the motives behind the study and/or who funded it, the study wasn’t funded by anyone in the industry, it was funded by a public health organization, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Policy Research Program.

  20. Jim Conaway - May 14, 2012

    The Snake Oil piece is a first rate exposure of what amounts to a scam.

  21. Dean - August 13, 2012

    You can detect the fake bottles or fake alcohol, after buying online.

  22. gossip,celebs - August 1, 2013

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