Fall brings with it homecoming events, tailgate parties, and the return of students for the holiday season, making it a good time for grocers who sell beer, wine or spirits to review their front-end policy.
Strategies retailers use to prevent sales of alcoholic beverages to underage consumers include software that reminds the clerk to check a shopper's identification when age-restricted products are scanned. The rule of thumb is to card if the person looks like he or she might be under age 27, or even 30.
Albertsons does a good job of preventing underage consumers from buying tobacco, according to a licensed addiction counselor, Laura Harper, a prevention specialist with MHC, Mental Health Center, Billings, Mont. Harper doesn't test for alcohol sales, but said that her agency runs educational programs with food and beverage retailers, as well as with local school parent-teacher associations.
Liability is the issue that usually prompts store owners to worry, but there is also a scientific basis for preventing adolescent drinking.
"The human brain undergoes enormous restructuring from about age 12 to about age 20, and part of the process leaves you susceptible to addiction," said Ken Taylor, who is a prevention officer with the Addictive and Mental Disorders Division of the Department of Public Health and Human Services for the state of Montana.
"I think the retailers want to do the right thing. It really is very important," he said. Taylor said neuroscientists have found that in the formative teen years, the brain develops according to use. "If you are using your brain to play basketball, to play music, to study history and literature, that's what your brain becomes geared to do. If you use it to sit around, or sit around and drink, and get violent, that's what your brain becomes geared to do."
When merchants sell age-restricted products, they assume a large responsibility. Incorporating that into staff training is key.
"Probably at every training session or every team meeting, [retailers] emphasize the key points on the business plan, like customer service. If they are looking at how they deal with age-restricted products as part of their customer service plan, then they are going to be very effective," Taylor said.
Giving employees some skills to work with is essential, he said. Many of the practices promoted in the tobacco industry's We Card program can cross over to alcohol compliance.
"Retailers always want to know what the laws are, for liability issues, how to make themselves less vulnerable on that," said Harper, the prevention specialist at MHC in Billings.
Spot checks are done by Montana through its department of revenue, she said, and MHC has several grants through the Montana Board of Crime Control, which pays police officers overtime to do those checks, she said. "We get volunteers, kids who are 18 to 20, who must use their own ID, and have no facial hair, and basically look their age."
Some convenience stores do their own compliance checks, trying to cut down on underage sales, by hiring a mystery shopper or pulling someone from one of their stores in another town. They do that as part of their training, and to reduce their own liability, Harper said. "If you can show that you are making an effort to prevent underage sales or sales to intoxicated persons, if you at least have some kind of procedure to document that, it helps," she told SN.
"Albertsons here told us, 'We need an updated state driver's license book,' because they had been turning people away, saying, 'Sorry, I can't sell to you,' so we got them a new, updated book. They took it to heart.
"One of the pushes by the state in terms of prevention is to make sure the underage laws are adhered to. If [kids] start using below age 15, they are four times more likely to develop alcoholism as an adult," Harper said.
That statistic and others were cited frequently during a conference on substance abuse that Harper and many other professionals attended earlier this month in New York City. The three-day conference was presented by The National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, called CASA, of which Joseph A. Califano Jr. is the founding chairman of the board and president. It was sponsored by a number of foundations and by the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the American Legacy Foundation, which works to help people quit smoking.
"Alcohol is the major drug of abuse for many people, 20 million Americans, through underage drinking and excessive adult drinking," said Califano, former Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare under the Carter Administration. Califano introduced a panel that included Albert R. Hunt, executive editor, Washington bureau, Wall Street Journal, as moderator; Jim O'Hara, executive director, Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth, Georgetown University; Guy Smith, executive vice president of Diageo, the world's largest maker of alcoholic drinks, including malternatives; and Susan Foster, vice president and director of policy research and analysis with CASA.