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When Teens Participate in Underage Drinking

Educate Yourself On Websites That Sell Alcohol Illegally To Minors

Specialty beer and wine Web sites offer an easy and convenient way for adults to purchase brands they might not find at their local convenience store. Liquor stores, quick to access the internet-savvy customer, have also begun to sell alcohol on the Web. There are literally thousands of sites that sell wine, liquor, beer and even absinthe to a worldwide market. Perhaps not surprisingly, some clever teenagers have discovered the convenience of online purchasing as well – without interference from parents or any serious legal ramifications.

The overall number of teenage drinkers is astounding. According to the "2002 National Survey on Drug Use & Health" published by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, "about 10.7 million persons aged 12 to 20 reported drinking alcohol in the month prior to the survey interview." Online alcohol access is part of this problem. An August 2006 survey conducted by Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) reported that 12 percent of teenagers know someone who has bought alcohol over the internet, and one-third said they are open to an online purchase before turning 21. The survey showed that 2 percent (approximately 551,000) admitted to personally buying alcohol online. Although this might seem to be a relatively small number of teens, parents should be paying attention – the problem is likely to grow.

Who's in Control?

Indeed, one of the most alarming results of the survey was that teens overwhelmingly (75 percent) believe that their parents have no control over what they do on the internet. This number should worry parents; kids feel that their behavior online is not subject to supervision, and they have a sense of freedom that may encourage risky and illegal behavior. Some of the natural inhibitions a minor might have buying alcohol by a more conventional route (say, using an older friend or fake ID) might be altogether absent in an anonymous internet purchase. This means that it may be easy for a teenager "to pull up a barstool anytime he or she surfs the Web," says Juanita Duggan, CEO of Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

Perhaps you find it difficult to believe that online retail sites could be so simple to cheat, or maybe the idea of your teen simply receiving a shipment of alcohol at the front door seems too far-fetched to worry about. Don't kid yourself. A 2006 audit of the states showed that 39 states had completed no online compliance checks of current regulations, six didn't know whether they had done a compliance or not and of those, two were confused as to whom the governing agency was! Delivery services are instructed to verify age and ask for a signature before leaving alcohol, but sting results confirm that it's often ignored. When the TRU survey was first reported early in 2006, an unbelieving media and skeptical policy makers began to test this for themselves. One sting operation after another verified that, in fact, purchasing online was easy and almost always yielded a successful sale.

Who's Worrying?

Are parents worried? "I'm far more worried about older friends and household liquor cabinets than I am about the likelihood of an internet purchase," says Simone Strong of Ypsilanti, Mich.

Are all teenagers tempted? One 17-year-old from Lansing, Mich., is not. "If I wanted the alcohol, I wouldn't bother to order online," he says. "There are easier, cheaper ways to get it. Nobody I know would waste the time."

Do these statements downplay the seriousness of this online crime, or do they merely reflect the internet's natural limitations as a significant risk to minors? Clearly, we cannot underestimate the sophistication and motivation of some teens to buy alcohol. Barb Meyers of Lansing, Mich., a mom of three, worries that until adults recognize the potential dangers of the internet, the trend will continue. "I'm concerned that society is not paying attention to an impending disaster," she says. "Even watchful parents are undermined by a society that does not take these survey results seriously." Parents will fight an uphill battle until retailers, policymakers and law enforcement become determined to fix this broken system.

The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University has revealed that in 2001, an analysis showed that, "a minimum of $22.5 billion (17.5 percent) of (total) consumer expenditures for alcohol came from underage drinking." There is big money in illegal alcohol purchases. The supposed age verification safeguards on alcohol retailers' Web sites (check-offs mostly) are easily cheated and the delivery system appears to be regularly faulty. There is no meaningful state oversight. It is naïve in the extreme to believe the current system of checks and balances will help us. It is solely up to us to monitor our teen's internet purchasing habits and assume that the lure of alcohol might be too great to resist and too easy to achieve.

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