US Lifestyles: Parents wage war against 'cyberbooze'

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The Independent Online
The national Christmas tree is lit, the strains of 'Jingle Bells' are in the air and the season of good cheer is well under way. Just the time, then, for America's sobriety lobby to warn about the dire combination of youth, computers and drink. Mary Dejevsky reports from Washington on the gathering campaign against 'cyberbooze' and what lies behind it.

Middle America may be very clear about what it is for: God, America and apple pie. But it is equally clear about what it is against, and high on that list is alcohol, especially when drunk by minors.

The very thought that thousands of teenagers may be logging on to their computers and ordering alcohol over the Internet - let alone taking delivery of the stuff and drinking it, is almost as terrifying to their parents and the public at large as the possibility that they might be exposed to Internet pornography along the way. To some, it is worse.

To combat this threat from "cyberbooze", a new alliance has sprung on to the already crowded lobbying scene. Americans for Responsible Alcohol Access (ARAA), is headed by the attorney-general of New York state, Dennis Vacco. He recently mounted a "sting" which netted a dozen or more firms for allegedly dispatching drink to juveniles.

The group lambasts "Internet bootleggers" who, it says, are bypassing state laws by selling wine and beer to all comers, without checking their age. The companies, however, ask how rigorous they can reasonably be.

Ordering wine or beer on the Internet in the United States is no more complicated than ordering a book or a plane ticket. A dozen or more easily accessible websites with names like Beer Across America, Virtual Vineyards, Wines from the West, tout their wares alongside sites advertising gourmet foods, chocolates and flowers.

Some companies require on-screen registration before processing the order; others provide an age box to tick. Most say they check the identity of the recipient when the goods are delivered - but watchful neighbours say delivery firms just leave the boxes on doorsteps. In practice, if a juvenile has his own (or a parent's) credit card number and ticks the age box, there is little to stop him ordering, and receiving, whatever takes his fancy.

But this seemingly simple - if undesirable - state of affairs, where 12 year-olds can order crates of beer by computer, conceals several layers of special interests. Internet vendors contend that very few juveniles order alcohol. They also charge that the ARAA, which is partly funded by liquor wholesalers, is using the issue of under-age drinking to protect vested interests: the interests of the states (which control liquor licences and taxation) and those of the traditional wholesalers - both of which stand to lose their cut if Internet trade expands.

All the forecasts suggest it will. Not only is buying by computer convenient, especially for those who live outside major centres or in the many "dry" counties of the central and southern United States, but it is also financially advantageous to buy where state tax is low or nil.

Last summer, a group of mail order companies reached agreement with the state authorities to try to close the sales tax loophole, but the effort came to nothing: a consumer outcry quashed it. With alcohol sales, some states have tried to protect their income, or their "dry" laws, by banning mail and computer-orders. But it is easier said than done.

Nor is the legal drinking age quite as clearly defined as it seems. Since 1988, following a series of drink-driving deaths publicised by the highly effective lobby group, Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (Madd), the majority of US states have raised the legal drinking age from 18 to 21. This has created a situation where young men and women who have attained the legal age of majority, who may vote, marry, take out a mortgage and command a battery of credit cards, break the law if they buy a beer or drink a glass of wine in public.

The higher drinking age found public favour in a country where the shadow of Prohibition still looms. But it is often flouted. This autumn, there was shock over the death from "binge" drinking of a student at the Massachussets Institute of Technology. And the drink-related deaths since then of five students in Virginia prompted the state's attorney general, Richard Cullen, to ask whether a lower legal drinking age might encourage more responsible drinking.

A spokeswoman for Tesco yesterday said that when people use its Internet service to buy wine, they must use either an ordinary credit card or a Tesco credit card and the holder of such cards must be 18 or over.