By Sue Hubbard, M.D.
What do you know about online alcohol sales? I must admit that I knew little about this industry and was amazed with some of the statistics I recently discovered while reading an article in the September 2012 Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. If you're the parent of a 'tween or teen, here's another topic for discussion and for monitoring.
According to this study, done in 2011 at the University of North Carolina, there are more than 5,000 Internet alcohol vendors, yet there's little regulatory attention paid to this $2.4 billion per year industry. Underage buyers searching for a place to purchase alcohol can now look beyond the corner liquor store or grocery.
In many communities, it is becoming more difficult for minors to purchase alcohol. There seems to be a push to improve enforcement by "carding" any one under the age of 30. This is certainly true in my area. I've watched my 28-year-old married son be asked to produce his ID (regretfully, merchants no longer ask for mine!).
In the UNC study, 45 of 100 Internet alcohol purchase attempts (by students ages 18-20) were successful and the underage buyers did receive the alcohol (predominately wine, but beer and liquor, as well). There was very little age verification at the point of order, with some orders being processed using a parent's birth date, or by simply checking a box stating that "buyer is over 21 years of age."
All of the orders cited in the study were for less than $100 and were made using prepaid gift cards that are difficult to track. Teens are savvy and will buy a card with cash, so they don't have to worry about parents tracking their credit card purchases.
Age verification at the time of delivery was also inconsistent. Even when packages were shipped and labeled "age verification at delivery," half the time the package was still delivered to a minor. In some cases, the alcohol was delivered to a neighbor, who then handed it off to the minor without paying any attention to what was in the box. (This seems like an easy thing to miss, as I often receive packages for my neighbors, sign for the items and then place them on the buyers' porches).
It is hard to stay ahead of tech-savvy teens, and with little regulation, underage Internet alcohol sales may continue to rise. I guess the good news is that this takes a bit of pre-planning on the part of an adolescent, but with a little notice and a prepaid gift card, a party a few weeks out may be easier to pull off than heading to the local liquor store on a Friday night.
Dr. Sue Hubbard is a nationally known pediatrician and co-host of "The Kid's Doctor" radio show. Submit questions at www.kidsdr.com
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This was printed in the June 1, 2013 - June 15, 2013 Edition