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As the pandemic boosts online alcohol sales, will governments protect young people?

Introduction by Croakey: Governments have been urged to improve the regulation of online alcohol sales and delivery, to protect young people and vulnerable adults from alcohol-related harms.

The call follows a study reviewing policies governing the online sale and home delivery of alcohol in 77 jurisdictions in six OECD countries: the United States, Canada, United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand.

Researchers from UNSW, La Trobe University and the University of Sydney report below that most jurisdictions have either temporarily or permanently relaxed liquor regulations for alcohol home delivery since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

As one prominent retailer says at its online store, “Shopping for drinks at Dan Murphy’s online is as easy as 1, 2, 3.”


Stephanie Colbert, Claire Wilkinson, Louise Thornton, Xiaoqi Feng and Robyn Richmond write:

An international review of policies governing the online sale and home delivery of alcohol has found that regulations often do not meet the same standard as walk-in bottle shops and may be insufficient to prevent underage access to alcohol.

Our study, just published in Health Policy, is the first comprehensive review of international policies in this area. We analysed the policies of 77 jurisdictions across Australia, New Zealand, USA, Canada, UK and Ireland.

Current state of government regulation

Only seven jurisdictions (none in Australia) had a requirement for age to be verified online at the time of purchase.

Without age checks online the only barrier to a minor making a purchase of alcohol is access to a debit/credit card or PayPal account. This is insufficient given that children can open debit card accounts in most countries. Children in Australia can do so from age nine and without parental involvement from age 14, far below the minimum alcohol purchase age.

Almost all jurisdictions in our study relied on age verification occurring at the time of delivery. This is flawed as it relies on a person over the legal purchase age being home to collect the delivery, and a delivery person being trained and motivated to correctly verify age – neither of which are currently mandated in some jurisdictions.

In Australia, for example, the states of New South Wales, South Australia and Tasmania make explicit allowances for delivered alcohol to be left unattended at the buyer’s request, and currently no jurisdictions except the Northern Territory require delivery drivers to complete training in the responsible service of alcohol (despite this being mandatory for all bottle shop employees in all states and territories).

Without stringent regulations in place, liquor authorities overseas have found delivery services ‘routinely delivering alcoholic beverages to minors’ and in Australia delivering to playgrounds and schools without question. This is concerning given the well-established harms associated with the consumption of alcohol by underage youth, including an increased risk of damage to the developing brain and developing an alcohol use disorder in adulthood.

Industry self-regulation

In a vacuum of regulation, the alcohol industry globally and in Australia have stepped-in with some self-regulatory guidelines for alcohol retailers operating in this space.

While on the surface this may seem like a gesture of corporate responsibility to be applauded, previous experience would suggest that self-regulation can delay government regulation at the expense of public health.

There are obvious conflicts of interest with the alcohol industry writing their own rules, given that their primary goal is to sell alcohol and turn a profit for their shareholders. But in addition to this, self-regulatory guidelines are problematic as they’re generally vaguely worded, contain loopholes, and most importantly they are voluntary. Breaches are routine as they attract no meaningful financial or legal penalty.

Alcohol advertising has been self-regulated by the industry for many years in Australia and widely criticised for its ineffectiveness, particularly at protecting youth from exposure to alcohol advertising.

We’ve also learnt these lessons from Australia’s attempt at an industry-led voluntary scheme for pregnancy warning labels on alcohol containers. After six years of the industry-led self-regulatory arrangement, less than half of packaged alcoholic beverages were found to bear the warning label.

What’s changing?

Alcohol home delivery is of growing importance as sales have boomed in the past five years in Australia and elsewhere, with growth further accelerated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The closure of pubs and bars and lockdown restrictions have driven more consumers to ordering online, with online alcohol industry revenue expected to increase by 27 percent in Australia in the financial year ending June 2021.

Promisingly in Australia, state governments have begun to move to strengthen regulations for online alcohol sales and home delivery.

Leading the way is NSW with legislation introduced recently making it clear that deliveries to minors and intoxicated persons are prohibited. From 1 December 2021, delivery drivers in NSW delivering alcohol on the same day it was ordered will be required to have completed training in the responsible service of alcohol, and from 1 June 2022 age will need to be verified online at the time of purchase. Unfortunately, most of these provisions will only apply to same-day alcohol deliveries, creating inconsistent regulation that may create challenges for compliance and enforcement.

A bill currently before the Victorian parliament would strengthen laws in that state, but it still falls short of meeting the same standards as walk-in bottle shops. The draft bill contains no requirements for online age verification or training for delivery drivers.

Call for action

We call on all governments in Australia to improve online alcohol sales and delivery regulation to meet the same standard as walk-in bottle shops, to protect youth and vulnerable adults from alcohol harm.

Policies should include a requirement for age verification online at the time of purchase for all deliveries, and mandated responsible service of alcohol training for all delivery drivers.

These are common sense measures to protect our community from alcohol, a substance involved in around 6,000 deaths and 75,000 hospitalisations every year in Australia.

Authors

Stephanie Colbert is a second year PhD student in the School of Population Health at the University of New South Wales (UNSW), supervised by Dr Claire Wilkinson, Dr Louise Thornton, A/Prof Xiaoqi Feng and Prof Robyn Richmond.

Dr Claire Wilkinson is an NHMRC Senior Research Fellow at the Drug Policy Modelling Program at UNSW, and an Honorary Research Fellow at the Centre for Alcohol Policy Research, La Trobe University.

Dr Louise Thornton is a Research Fellow at the Matilda Centre for Research in Mental Health and Substance Use at the University of Sydney.

A/Prof Xiaoqi Feng is the Associate Professor in Urban Health and Environment at the UNSW School of Population Health, NHMRC Career Development Fellow and Founding Co-Director of Population Wellbeing and Environment Research Lab (PowerLab)

Professor Robyn Richmond is an Emeritus Professor at the School of Population Health at UNSW with 40 years research experience in alcohol, tobacco and other drug research.


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