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Online alcohol sales are booming, but what are the implications?

Research is needed as to whether licensing laws are robust enough to deal with the changing way in which we are choosing to buy alcohol, says Mark Leyshon

24 April 2017 – Recent news that the UK tops the European tables for online alcohol sales perhaps won’t come as a surprise to too many people.

After all, the UK has been one of the leaders in online grocery shopping for a while now, with time-pressed shoppers enjoying the convenience of being able to order their groceries from the comfort of their own homes and have them delivered to their doorstep at an hour of their choosing.  

With alcohol now firmly a part of the regular grocery shop, no longer just an occasional purchase for a treat or special occasion, it is perhaps inevitable that online alcohol sales are on the rise too. Whilst most consumers will welcome the increasing ease by which we can purchase our groceries, the growth of internet shopping has meant a further increase in the overall availability of alcohol.

It is well-established that the more widely available and obtainable alcohol is, the greater amounts of it can be consumed, and consequently the more normal and acceptable frequent and excessive consumption tends to become within society. This then exacerbates alcohol-related problems.

As noted by Dr John Holmes and colleagues, the role of the internet in changing alcohol availability has received little research to date and it is, at present, unclear as to how exactly this may be impacting on drinking behaviour.

It is not only researchers, however, who may be playing catch up. Alcohol sales online seem to be a blind spot for the major supermarkets in terms of preventing underage access. 

Supermarkets have been proactive in adopting vigorous in-store age-checking policies. ‘Challenge 21’ (since extended to ‘Challenge 25’) was developed in 2006 to provide staff serving alcohol with a wide range of protection to ensure that alcohol is not sold to anyone under 18, by making it a policy that all customers who look under 21 years old are asked for proof of age when attempting to purchase alcohol.

Online, however, things appear less robust. A survey by Alcohol Concern of 14–17-year-olds in Wales found that 15% of respondents who had previously attempted to buy alcohol for themselves or someone else had successfully purchased alcohol online. Most of these found it “easy” to do so, stating that age verification systems were quickly and easily bypassed.

The supermarkets will argue that these online age verification processes are the best available standards. It follows, then, that to provide relative certainty that alcohol is being supplied to an adult, further age checking must be implemented at the delivery stage of the transaction. This is supported by the Home Office’s Section 182 licensing guidance, which states that it is "the responsibility of the person serving or delivering the alcohol to ensure that age verification has taken place".

Test purchases by South Wales Police, however, found that alcohol was often handed over to minors by supermarket delivery drivers without proof of age being requested. More test purchasing by police forces across the country would therefore be welcome to ascertain the current levels of compliance.

As the market expands, it is pretty evident that online alcohol sales will continue to rise. Local home delivery services are popping up in towns and cities up and down the country, online specialist alcohol retailers are growing, and the big players like Amazon are also getting in on the action.

Clearly, more research is needed as to whether licensing laws are robust enough to deal with this changing way in which we are choosing to buy alcohol, the extent to which minors are acquiring alcohol via this means, and whether age verification processes are fit for purpose. As the House of Lords Select Committee on the Licensing Act 2003 acknowledged recently, online sales and delivery of alcohol will need to be closely monitored going forward.

Written by Mark Leyshon, Senior Policy & Research Officer at Alcohol Concern. Alcohol Concern is a trading name of Alcohol Research UK, company number 7462605.

All IAS Blogposts are published with the permission of the author. The views expressed are solely the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Alcohol Studies.