How easily can under 18s buy alcohol online?

Jessica Muirhead and Professor Vic Grout | June 2020 | 6 minutes

Jessica Muirhead and Professor Vic Grout discuss their recent research into age-gating practices for online alcohol sales.

How surprised would you be to find out that current methods for preventing under 18s from buying alcohol online were not very effective? Not very? No, neither were we, but discovering exactly why has been an interesting journey!

The law seems clear enough: it shouldn’t happen. It’s an offence to sell alcohol to children and that applies to the internet just as much as it would in a high street shop. But the devil is in the detail. Exactly who is responsible for ensuring this and when and where is far from clear.

The first problem seems to be confusion as to whether checking for age when the alcohol is delivered is enough to satisfy the law. If it is, then that’s an issue because earlier studies have shown that doorstep checks are not very effective. If it’s not, then...well, that’s still an issue because it means that age verification during the online transaction itself needs to be robust...but it frequently isn’t.

... age verification during the online transaction itself needs to be robust...but it frequently isn’t.

Often, online age verification is done purely on trust. Check the 'I am over 18' box or 'Enter your date of birth'. Insisting that the buyer uses a credit card provides some additional checking though as we discovered in our research, there are just too many ways round this for it to be relied upon. Checking on delivery is hopeless: drivers are often rushed, have little incentive to try and often don’t know what they’re delivering anyway.

And it gets worse when alcohol is bought as part of a larger order, for example a supermarket delivery or with a gift. The alcohol can sometimes be effectively hidden within the larger online basket, bypassing the age checks both online and on the doorstep.

The alcohol can sometimes be effectively hidden within the larger online basket, bypassing the age checks both online and on the doorstep.

But there are some simple extensions to existing systems that would make detecting this easier as discussed in our new report. Current item checks could be extended to use the banks’ existing authentication of customers to enforce purchase restrictions for under 18s. We also look at how some key emerging and future technologies might address wider issues in the longer term.

There’s no perfect solution. It’s never going to be possible to completely prevent under 18s from buying alcohol online but we could, and should, be doing better than we currently are. For starters, the Licencing Act 2003 should be tightened and clear guidance provided on how it should be applied. Then we stand a chance of doing something positive to protect young people from potentially slipping through this loophole.

It’s never going to be possible to completely prevent under 18s from buying alcohol online but we could, and should, be doing better than we currently are.

Jessica Muirhead is Lecturer in Computer Science and Vic Grout is Professor of Computing Futures at Wrexham Glyndŵr University.

Read the report