NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Nearly half of all attempts by underage buyers to purchase alcohol online were successful in a new study, exposing weaknesses in both delivery companies' and online vendors' systems for verifying customer ages.
"We know that young people will search for the easiest avenue to access alcohol," said Alexander Wagenaar, a health outcomes and policy researcher at the University of Florida College of Medicine in Gainesville, who was not involved in the study.
"There needs to be real age and ID checking when it's ordered as well as when it's delivered," he told Reuters Health.
The study did not show how often underage buyers actually purchase alcohol online in real-world settings.
But to measure how easy it might be, researchers asked eight young adults, aged 18 to 20 years old, to try to buy alcohol from 100 online vendors.
If websites asked for identification, the buyers could give a false age, but the study required them to provide their real ID card if it was requested.
Among the retailers, only 12 rejected the sale because of the age of the buyer.
Another 16 purchases were stopped at the point of delivery when the driver checked the recipient's ID.
Some attempts to purchase alcohol failed not because the buyer was underage, but for example because a credit card was denied or the vendor wouldn't ship to the buyer's state.
In the end, 45 out of the 100 attempts ended up with alcohol in the hands of a minor, according to findings published in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
Those deliveries included wine, beer and hard liquor.
Rebecca Williams, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who led the study, said she was surprised that minors using their real IDs could buy alcohol online.
"We would imagine that the success rates would have been even higher if they hadn't been forced to use their real ID," she told Reuters Health.
Her study found that deliveries made by FedEx were more likely to overlook the age of the recipient, despite company policies to check identification.
Scott Fiedler, a spokesman for the company, wrote in a statement emailed to Reuters Health that "we take the findings in this report seriously and hope the researches will share additional details with us. After we have had time to review the study, we will take any necessary corrective action to ensure our policies are being followed."
Many of the alcohol vendors in the study exclusively sell wine.
Tom Wark, the executive director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association, said "just like brick-and-mortar stores, online retailers of alcohol have to be more careful and more rigorous in terms of how they monitor sales that come into their websites."
But Wark took issue with the suggestion that minors are buying wine online in real-world settings.
The process can take one to two weeks, it includes substantial delivery charges, "and then I have to hope my parents aren't around when it's delivered," Wark told Reuters Health. "It's more expensive, very difficult to carry out and much easier to get alcohol in other ways."
Wagenaar said studies have shown that when laws are enforced and retail stores are monitored, about 15 to 20 percent of brick-and-mortar outlets will continue to sell to minors.
When laws are not enforced, as many as 75 to 80 percent of offline stores will sell to minors, he said.
"I think we need policy reform to restrict youth access to alcohol online," said Williams. "Very little policy attention has been given to this industry compared to the Internet tobacco industry."
"Furthermore, substantial restrictions to youth access can be achieved by FedEx and UPS revising and enforcing their own policies," she added.
SOURCE: bit.ly/JhG9n5 Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, online May 7, 2012.