‘Major weaknesses’ in online alcohol sales age-verification controls

By Rachel Arthur contact

- Last updated on GMT

Pic:getty/thegoodbrigade
Pic:getty/thegoodbrigade

Related tags: Alcohol, ecommerce

Sales of alcohol online are increasing: but findings from a new report suggest that online retailers are ‘failing in their responsibilities’ to ensure alcohol is not being delivered to minors.

Research from Wrexham Glyndŵr University, commissioned by Alcohol Change UK, examined online age verification controls on retailers’ websites. The research identified major weaknesses, concluding that current methods of online age verification are “largely ineffectual”.

Setting out its recommendations to improve the situation, Alcohol Change UK says a multi-component approach that seeks to create an environment that reduces alcohol harm from online drinks sales is ‘urgently needed’.

Controls go beyond age-gates: but that doesn't guarantee effectiveness

Online alcohol sales in the hit record figures in 2020, with the value of alcohol e-commerce increasing by 42% in just one year, according to IWSR figures. Even as life in the UK is anticipated to return to a more ‘normal’ footing, online alcohol sales are expected to continue to accelerate internationally across key markets, including the UK, and the value of e-commerce alcohol sales is forecast to grow by 74% between 2020 and 2024.

All online retailers selling alcohol considered by the researchers have written policies in place, published on their respective websites, which requires customers to be least 18 years old to use their services and purchase goods for delivery or collection (the legal drinking age in the UK).

Simple age gates – requiring customers to enter their date of birth or confirm they were over 18 – are easily passed.

Many retailers, however, do have stricter measures. Some require payment via credit card as proof that the payee is over 18; given that the Consumer Credit Act of 1974 prohibits under-18s from taking out credit cards. However, researchers found that under-18s could simply use an adult’s account or credit card to purchase alcohol.

Retailers’ policies also typically state that age verification on the doorstep will be required for alcohol orders if the recipient appears to be under 18 years old. Half of the retailers included in the research explicitly operate a Challenge 25 policy, whereby anyone who looks under 25 years old will be routinely asked for ID verifying their age (typically a driving licence or passport), with the delivery refused to those unable to provide such evidence.

However, a test purchases operation found that in 72% of cases where alcohol was ordered for delivery within two hours, this was subsequently handed over to the 18- and 19-year-old test purchasers without seeking proof of age.

So how big is the problem? “That age verification checks online can be easily bypassed in theory, however, doesn’t tell us what proportion of children may be actually acquiring alcohol in this way​,” notes the report.

“There is no firm data available to clarify this, however there are some indications that the numbers may be significant. Alcohol Concern’s 2013 On your doorstep report included the results of a survey of 636 young people aged 14 to 17, of whom 15% said that they had successfully bought alcohol online, and over two thirds of these said they found it “easy” to do so.

“As part of the Wrexham Glyndŵr study, the 93 student participants were asked to recall whether they had purchased alcohol online when under 18 years of age. 8% of the students said they had done so, and 12% said they knew of others who had bought alcohol in this way. Whilst this small sample cannot be considered representative of the wider population, the methods they adopted are revealing – either misrepresenting their age or borrowing an adult’s payment card.”

Possible solutions

Alcohol Change UK recommends a multi-component approach to ensure only adults of legal drinking age purchase alcohol.

Firstly, it wants to see a robust training and support system set up by retailers, to enable their delivery drivers to effectively and routinely refuse to hand over alcohol to anyone underage or showing visible signs of intoxication.

Furthermore, police and trading standards teams across England and Wales should routinely undertake test purchase operations using participants under 18 years of age, to test retailers’ adherence to the law and their own policies in not selling or delivering alcohol to minors; with consideration also given to how best to test whether alcohol is being delivered to people who are intoxicated.

Alcohol Change UK also wants to see further research examine the extent to which minors may be acquiring alcohol via online sales and home deliveries.

The full report and recommendations can be found here​.

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