When I was a little kid growing up in New Jersey, I used to love watching the old Abbott and Costello movies that were run each Sunday morning on WPIX out of New York City. My all time favorite movie by this duo was “Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.” In the film, the hapless duo encounters three of cinema’s most terrifying monsters: Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man. Hilarity ensues.
Of course this begs the question, what do Dracula, Frankenstein and the Wolf Man have to do with Maryland’s Direct Shipment proposal? Because just like Abbott and Costello, Maryland’s Wholesalers will undoubtedly unleash their three scariest monsters onto the general public as the Maryland Legislature considers its direct shipment legislation. In no particular order, the wholesalers’ monsters are: 1) underage access to alcohol over the Internet; 2) organized crime; and 3) illegal shipments of wine by wineries.
In the days and weeks ahead, I would like to take each of these ‘monsters’ in turn and demonstrate that they are nothing more than scare tactics unleashed by Maryland Wholesalers on the general public. Let’s start with access to wine over the Internet by underage drinkers.
This is by far the favorite monster of the Wholesale lobby and the good folks over at Vinotrip are already on the case. Time and again Wholesalers testify before elected officials and tell the same scary story: direct shipment will allow underage kids to easily access wine over the Internet. As the story goes, kids will simply hop onto the Internet, order some wine through with their parent’s credit card and wait for it to show up at their door.
But just like any monster, this is a story that has no factual support. Indeed, the real monster lurking in the shadows is often the parents themselves. This is evidenced by a June 2008 study from the United States Department of Health and Human Services. The study provides a broad overview of the problem of underage drinking, but one chapter is relevant to our discussion.
Specifically, Chapter 4.3 of the report is dedicated entirely to how underage drinkers gain access to alcohol. The research is organized by age group (i.e., 12 - 14; 15 - 17; and 18 - 20) and mechanisms for alcohol procurement are identified for each (e.g., took from home, received from parent, etc.). Although HHS uses three separate bar charts in their table, I have consolidated their results into a single graph, which is contained below:
Although the chart identifies the numerous ways in which underage kids gain access to alcohol, noticeably absent is any mention whatsoever of the Internet. This is particularly striking since at the time the report was released, the Pew Internet & American Life Project released a report (Adobe Acrobat required) finding that 73% of respondents (about 147 million adults) were internet users, and the share of Americans who had broadband connections at home was 42% (about 84 million). In other words, the Internet was embedded in mainstream American life in 2006 when HHS was compiling its data.
Moreover, a quick look at the data reveals that in the overwhelming majority of instances, kids are getting alcohol through social contacts (e.g., their parents, guardians or someone’s home), not retail contacts. In this regard, I thought it would help to aggregate these data sets into broader categories to see the results. My reconstructed chart is contained below:
Looking at the numbers in this way demonstrates that the vast majority of kids — between 81% and almost 90% — are clearly obtaining alcohol through non-Internet means. The monster is not the Internet, it is parents, guardians, adults and unlocked liquor cabinets. The only exceptions to this rule are the categories identified in the HHS chart as “Other” and in those instances where kids purchased the alcohol on their own. Taking each of these in turn, even the most basic research reveals that these other sources of alcohol cannot be placed at the Internet’s doorstep.
For example, the category identifying kids who purchase alcohol themselves illustrates that as kids get older, this acquisition method for alcohol increases. That makes logical sense: as kids get older, they look older, and their ability to purchase alcohol through use of fake IDs increases. And this logic is backed up by various reports and surveys, including this one from the Centers for Disease Control.
As far as the “Other” category goes, there is not much to say. As a threshold matter it is a relatively smaller subset of the overall group. In addition, it was likely included as a ‘catch-all’ for less prominent means of access (e.g., stole from a store, purchased at a sporting event, etc.).
The bottom line, wholesalers’ arguments about kids accessing alcohol through the Internet should be dismissed out of hand. It is nothing more than a scary monster manufactured by their industry to try to scare the public and legislators.