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Underage Drinkers Buy Alcohol Online With Few Barriers

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May 7 (Bloomberg) -- Underage drinkers successfully bought alcohol online in about half their attempts, according to a study that found the illegal purchases went through even when little attempt was made to disguise the buyer’s true age.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill recruited eight young adults, ages 18 to 20, to buy wine, alcohol, beer or other adult beverages from 100 popular websites in the $2.4 billion industry. All were given a letter of immunity from the local district attorney. Their efforts are detailed in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

Of the orders, 45 were received, 28 were rejected after the delivery company tried to verify the buyer’s age and 11 were sent back when no one was home to receive them. Another 16 went awry for reasons like technical glitches unrelated to age. While the researchers allowed buyers to fabricate a birth date on an online purchase form, they had to show their real identification if they were asked for it. In many cases, the official document didn’t prevent the purchase, the study found.

“The fact that there are literally thousands of online outlets selling alcohol and that purchase attempts by underage persons are successful almost half of the time tells us how insufficient the protections are for our youth,” said David Jernigan, director of the Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth at Johns Hopkins School of Public Health in Baltimore. “The bottom line is that alcohol regulation and enforcement are simply not keeping up with new technologies.”

Wine Shipments

The wine industry’s efforts to ship products across the country contributed to a loosening of commerce restrictions that aided underage internet alcohol sales, said researchers led by Rebecca Williams from UNC’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention. The U.S. Supreme Court in 2005 ruled that laws banning out-of-state wineries from shipping to consumers in Michigan and New York were unconstitutional because they interfered with free trade.

Most of the deliveries in the study were made by FedEx Corp. or United Parcel Service Inc., which have rules for age verification at delivery for wine shipments. Neither ships any other type of alcohol. It’s illegal to mail alcohol through the U.S. Postal Service.

A second set of studies found that one in eight high school seniors said they have used prescription pain medicines to get high or for other non-medical purposes. Sixteen-year-olds are most likely to start abusing prescription pain pills, according to a survey of 138,729 youths ages 12 to 21.

The findings show prevention efforts that start at the end of high school are missing the window, said researchers led by Elizabeth Meier, from Michigan State University in East Lansing.

“With the peak risk at age 16 years and a notable acceleration in risk between ages 13 and 14 years, any strict focus on college students or 12th graders might be an example of too little, too late,” they concluded. “There is reason to strengthen earlier school-based prevention programs.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Michelle Fay Cortez in Minneapolis at mcortez@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Reg Gale at rgale5@bloomberg.net

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