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Todd Sheppard

Live Oak Bank

Story on Minors & Online Sales Disappears – WTF?

This article disappeared from the web right before I sent out News Fetch this morning:

I tried to track down the “WTF?” factor. Couldn’t believe my eyes, so I re-Googled. Got this:

And ALL of those links now fail to find the original article.

No one at television station WFMY in Greensboro NC was available to comment on why the article disappeared. I did, however, find the following about the research grant behind the study:

Sleuths target online booze: UNC to see if teens can buy

The News & Observer

UNC – Chapel Hill cyber-detectives are heading out on a new quest to track down underage sin.

Students between 18 and 20 — under academic and legal supervision — will be recruited for a $400,000 study later this year to test how easy it is to order alcohol from the Web. The same researchers running the alcohol study helped put a major dent in online cigarette sales to minors with similar tests earlier this decade.

The number of underage people who buy booze over the Internet is a matter of controversy. But at some sites, a mouse click asserting that a buyer is 21 appears to be the only proof a minor needs to buy liquor, wine or beer. Offshore locations, variations in law from state to state, and the chance to avoid sales tax have all contributed to the growth of online alcohol-marketing sites.

“They don’t do enough to keep underage people from buying,” said Laura Borders, 18, a N.C. School of Science and Mathematics senior who’s doing a preliminary survey of sites for the project.

UNC-Chapel Hill researchers Rebecca Williams and Kurt Ribisl have secured the $400,000, three-year grant from the nonprofit Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to attempt underage purchases from as many as 100 Internet alcohol sellers.

In the study, UNC students will be given immunity by prosecutors, then order alcohol from Web sites to see how well the sites determine buyers’ ages.

Even if relatively few minors are ordering beer, wine or liquor online, the practice should be shut down before it grows, said Traci L. Toomey, associate professor of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. As crackdowns on selling beer and booze to minors in convenience stores and other bricks-and-mortar venues continue, online sources may get more underage traffic, Toomey said.

“I don’t think we should ignore any possible sources of alcohol,” said Toomey, who has researched underage drinking. “If we shut down one source, underage youth most likely will shift to another source.”

New laws and other curbs could result from the UNC study, as they did after UNC researchers’ groundbreaking surveys of Internet cigarette vendors.

“Most people that you talk to about it are shocked when you say you can buy alcohol online,” said Williams, a project director at the UNC-CH Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.

“From what we’ve seen with cigarette sites, the controls are definitely not very strong.”

Shutting down tobacco

The work of Williams and Ribisl helped federal and state regulators get credit-card companies and PayPal to agree not to process payments for Web-based tobacco sales. The UNC-CH researchers also helped out as UPS and other carriers agreed to ban shipping tobacco, in 2005.

“Our research made a big difference in forming these laws and voluntary agreements,” Williams said.

Craig Lloyd, state executive director of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, said the organization has encountered cases of online alcohol marketing to minors and referred them to the state Alcohol Law Enforcement division, or ALE.

“Someone had received something in the mail soliciting sales with a free bottle of wine,” Lloyd said. “It had actually come to someone’s young child.”

Lloyd said MADD has been watching the issue and waiting for academic and scientific data to be released.

“We applaud [UNC researchers] for doing things like this to keep our roadways and children safe,” he said.

Hard numbers elusive

Lawmakers and others have long worried about the ease with which underage drinkers can buy online.

“Unfortunately, indiscriminate direct sales of alcohol have opened a sophisticated generation of minors to the perils of alcohol abuse,” U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican, said during a 1999 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on Internet alcohol sales.

Hard numbers on how many teens and under-21s order up Web-based booze are difficult to come by.

Answers from 14- to 20-year-olds in a national survey conducted in 2006 by Teenage Research Unlimited, an Illinois-based research company, indicated that at least 550,000 minors had bought alcohol online. If accurate, the numbers would represent only a few percentage points among underage drinkers.

“We advocate against online access and direct shipping, with access for minors being a primary reason for that,” said Nancy White, public affairs director for Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America, a trade group that paid for the study.

However, winemakers groups claim that the study was slanted toward overestimating illegal use of Web marketing so that wholesalers can retain their role and their take as middlemen.

Free the Grapes, a California-based trade group that says consumers should have the right to have wine delivered to their homes, favors restrictions including prominent stickers on packages that stipulate delivery only to people over 21.

Williams, the UNC researcher, says she hopes, under a future grant, to undertake a study determining underage Web purchases of alcohol.

Meanwhile state regulators are left to wrestle with an illegal practice that’s hard to get a handle on.

“It’s something that we would need to look into,” said Bill Chandler, head of the state’s Alcohol Law Enforcement division.

“We’d have to sit down with some of our attorneys and some of the DAs to determine how to proceed.

“How do you prosecute something like that? Where does the crime occur?”


Two examples of online alcohol age checks:

* North Carolina wineries ask that online shoppers type in birthdates, then require delivery companies such as FedEx to have an adult sign for any shipment, said Margo Metzger, executive director of the N.C. Wine and Grape Council.

* The Absinthe Original Liquor Store, based in the United Kingdom, only advises online shoppers that they must be of age before offering to ship the hard-liquor drink absinthe, containing wormwood, which is banned as a toxic substance in the United States.

Also found this at:

Groundbreaking HPDP research to study online alcohol sales


Wednesday, January 14, 2009

ICV TeamHPDP researchers will be the first to investigate if alcohol can be purchased by minors via the Internet in a new study.

Co-investigators Rebecca Williams and Kurt Ribisl have studied online cigarette sales since 1999, noting regulatory problems related to sales to minors and excise tax evasion. The results of their Internet Cigarette Vendors (ICV) study have been used to guide the creation of policies restricting sales of cigarettes online. For example, credit card companies and PayPal no longer process payments for online tobacco sales. The research also led all shipping companies such as UPS and FedEx to refuse to deliver tobacco purchased online.

In the newest phase of this research, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the research team will visit cigarette e-business websites to see how policies that have taken effect since their last study are affecting the ICV industry. Williams and Ribisl will also conduct the first study of the sales and marketing practices of websites that sell alcohol. Underage research assistants with special immunity from prosecution will analyze websites to determine their sales and marketing practices and attempt to buy alcohol online. The researchers will determine the extent to which online vendors attempt to verify customer age before selling their products. An earlier purchase survey for the ICV study showed online cigarette vendors rarely verified the age of their customers. The project will be able to conduct real-time analyses of new regulations for online vendors of restricted products as they take effect.

This phase of the study is in its early stages, but has already earned media coverage from regional newspapers, radio and television.

Date: January 14, 2009