Reporter 456, 9 October 2000

Alcohol sales probe brings policy shift

Undercover work involving a collaboration amongst researchers in the School of Psychology, colleagues in Wales, the Thames Valley Police and a team of 62 adolescent girls and boys has helped change Government policy on tackling alcohol-related crime.

Dr Ken Hart of Leeds worked with Professor Paul Willner of the University of Wales to find out just how easy it is for adolescents to buy booze in corner shops, off-licences, supermarkets and pubs around the country.

Teenage kicks: fieldwork proved that few vendors check whether customers are old enough

Their findings, in a project funded by the Alcohol Education and Research Council, were cited by Home Office minister Charles Clarke as he launched a new action plan on alcohol-related crime and disorder.

The research involved sending teenagers into outlets to make undercover ‘test purchases’. On 470 occasions, the underage customers attempted illicit purchases of alcopops, beer, cider, wine and spirits.

In the first phase of the study, which preceded a community-wide police intervention and the issue of a number of police cautions, almost nine out of 10 of the 16-year-old girls and three-quarters of boys that age were able to purchase without being challenged.

Vendors were even willing to supply alcoholic drinks to four out of 10 among the 13-year-old girls helping the research. Fewer than 12 per cent of purchase attempts prompted the retailers to demand ‘Prove-It’ age cards.

The study, published in the journal Addiction, suggests sales staff are very poor at estimating the age of younger customers, especially young girls. Other findings showed most vendors of alcohol perceive little risk in flouting the minimum age law.

The current Home Office initiative has embraced the researchers’ recommendation that a positive duty should be placed on retailers to check that the purchaser is not below the threshold age. As well as more rigorous enforcement of the existing legislation, the Government accepted the researchers’ case for improved education and the promotion of a ‘best practice’ proof-of-age scheme.

Dr Hart commented: "One interesting finding was that vendors were less likely to flout the law if more than one person was serving behind the counter at the time – proof that sales staff can be made more vigilant by social-psychological influences.

"Apart from concluding that the age-proof system needs to be improved, our findings also recommend changes to the law to allow police forces to use our kind of ‘test purchases’ as the legal basis for prosecutions."

Until now, trading standards offices and police forces have been able to use such undercover tactics only as the basis for cautions, as prosecutions would fail on the principle of entrapment.

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