District of Columbia Beer Sting Finds Retailers Failing to Check Youths' IDs
Summary of Neighborhood Survey Conducted May 2 - 5, 1997


Background

On April 17, 1997, the Beer Institute and the National Beer Wholesalers Association, as part of Alcohol Awareness Month, announced a retailer education program to encourage beer retailers to check age identification to avoid sales to underage persons. This program, dubbed "WE I.D.," was designed to assist retailers to detect and reject fake identification. According to the beer industry, more than 500,000 "WE I.D." cards will be distributed to retailers across the nation.

On May 13, America's largest brewer, Anheuser-Busch, teamed with 7-Eleven, the nation's largest convenience store retailer, announcing a nationwide program to help spot fake IDs. and educate parents on "how to talk to kids about drinking."

Alcohol is a factor in the three leading causes of death among young people, including homicide, suicide, and unintentional injuries. Underage drinking leads to violent crime, unwanted pregnancies, the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, school failures, and a wide range of other youth problems. Beer is the alcoholic beverage most commonly consumed by underage persons. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, junior and senior high school students drink 1.1 billion beers each year. Other researchers estimate that young people under 21 drink approximately 10% of all the beer in the U.S.

Study Design

To test whether small groceries and convenience stores check proof of age of young people who attempt to buy beer in the District of Columbia, CSPI organized a small survey of retail beer sales practices. CSPI recruited four young people, three women and one man, to make beer purchases at small grocery and convenience stores in D.C. Each of the purchasers was older than the minimum legal purchase age for alcohol (21 years), but looked younger.

To confirm that each purchaser appeared younger than 21, we took them, separately, to street locations in the Dupont Circle and Columbia Heights areas and asked fifty adult passers-by to estimate their ages. The average estimate of the purchasers' ages ranged from 18.7 to 20.9 years. Overall, 62 percent of those queried believed the subjects to be younger than 21.

With respect to one of the purchasers, only three of fifty respondents guessed that he was 21 or older. For the purchaser who appeared the oldest, who is actually 21 years old, just twenty-two of the fifty respondents believed her to be more than 21 years.

Once we determined that a sizable proportion of adults would consider the purchasers to be below the legal purchase age, or at least have doubts, we took the subjects to seven neighborhoods in the District, including Adams Morgan, Capitol Hill, Foggy Bottom, Georgetown, Georgia Avenue, Howard University/Shaw, and Mount Pleasant/Columbia Road. An accompanying adult gave them money to buy either a six-pack of beer or a 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor.

The observers watched them enter 40 neighborhood grocery stores, chosen at random, where beer is sold. We made certain that none of the purchasers possessed proof of age when they entered the stores. As they exited the stores, we recorded whether they had purchased the beer or whether they had been refused.

At least four 7-Eleven stores in the neighborhoods surveyed were entered, but those stores do not sell beer and were excluded from the survey.

Results

In 25 of 40 attempts (63%), the youthful-looking subjects purchased beer without presenting proof of age. Six of those times, subjects were asked for ID, but purchased beer even after failing to provide proof of age.

Purchase attempts in some neighborhoods were more successful than in others. For example, the male buyer in Mount Pleasant was refused in five of seven attempts; the female buyer in Adams Morgan, however, made six of seven buys without being required to present any age identification.

Discussion

Beer industry retailer education programs appear to have little effect on beer sales practices in neighborhood grocery stores in the District of Columbia. They may have important public relations value. The study's findings indicate that the programs' emphasis on blaming young people for using false identification (also a problem in many areas) misses the core problem: retailers who routinely fail even to check for proof of age. We suspect that such laxity leads to frequent illegal beer sales to underage persons. Clearly, industry education programs are insufficient to insure that underage purchase laws are respected.

Brewers and beer wholesalers, who now tightly control the manner in which their products are promoted and sold by retailers (e.g., shelf placement, cooler temperature, location and number of point-of-purchase advertising signs, etc.), apparently could require that retailers check proof of age and avoid sales to underage persons. In short, they could make such compliance checks a condition of any agreement they enter into with retailers who market their beers.

The D.C. Alcohol Beverage Control agency now has just 3 inspectors to cover more than 1,600 outlets licensed to sell alcoholic beverages. That agency needs additional resources to do an effective job of monitoring and ensuring compliance with the law against sales to minors and other license violations. Other jurisdictions, including neighboring Montgomery County, make regular and unannounced inspections of alcohol retailers and impose substantial fines and penalties on those who violate the law. In the District, where law enforcement is minimal and sanctions and penalties for underage sales violations are insignificant, retailers have few incentives to obey the law.

Recommendations

1) In order to effectively reduce sales of beer to underage persons, retailers should adopt a voluntary policy of requesting proof of age from all purchasers who appear to be younger than thirty (30) years old.

2) Brewers and beer wholesalers should advise stores with whom they do business that they will suspend or eliminate sales of beer to retailers who fail to require proof of age from buyers who appear to be younger than 30 years old. Brewers and beer wholesalers should incorporate this condition into contracts they now have with retailers.

3) The District of Columbia should expand its capacity to enforce the law against illegal beer sales to underage persons. The D.C. Control Board and the Council of the District of Columbia should allocate sufficient funds to the D.C. Alcohol Beverage Control Division for regular inspections of all alcohol licensees in the District. The number of inspectors should be increased from 3 to 18. That staffing level would give D.C. the same number of inspectors as Baltimore, which has approximately as many licensees as D.C. The funds for these new inspectors can come from the $3 million in annual fees paid by alcohol licensees.

4) The Council should enact legislation increasing the fines and penalties paid by licensees that sell to underage persons. The fines and penalties should be sufficient to deter such sales; they should be mandatory -- not discretionary -- after the first offense. After three violations within three years, licensees should have their licenses revoked.

May 19, 1997

[Results of Neighborhood Survey Conducted May 2 - 5, 1997]

[Purchasers for Neighborhood Survey Conducted May 2 - 5, 1997]