The impact of alcohol test purchasing on the availability of alcohol to minors

The impact of alcohol test purchasing on the availability of alcohol to minors

The impact of alcohol test purchasing on the availability of alcohol to minors

Research at the Department of Psychology led to legislation permitting the use of underage test purchasing of alcohol, the practice of using children to test which licensed premises may be selling alcohol to children below the age of 18. The method is now used routinely by every UK police force and local authority trading standards department (and internationally), and sales of alcohol to minors have fallen by over 60%.

In the late 1990s, concern about underage drinking reached crisis proportions with the advent of alcopops. Alcohol test purchasing by minors was at that time illegal, and in 1997 the Home Office commissioned a study through the Alcohol Education and Research Council (now Alcohol Research UK) that it was hoped would provide evidence to support the legalization of alcohol test purchasing.  Professor Paul Willner was successful in securing and delivering what was the first UK study of its kind, and only the second research study worldwide to attempt alcohol test purchasing with children (as distinct from young-looking adults).

The study, later described as “a landmark study” and “trail blazing research”, was designed by researchers at Swansea University, and has since gone on to deliver significant impacts:

  •  It has led directly to legislation in England and Wales in 2001, and later in Scotland (2005) and Northern Ireland (2008), permitting underage test purchasing of alcohol under official supervision.
  • Subsequent legislation required local authorities to use test purchasing to control the supply of alcohol to children. The method is now used routinely by every UK police force and local authority trading standards department (and internationally), and sales of alcohol to minors have fallen by over 60%.

 · Campaigns using alcohol test purchasing to educate alcohol vendors (Challenge 21 and Challenge 25) were introduced nationally by Trading Standards Departments

· Commercial companies (e.g. Serve Legal; Test Purchasing UK; The Test Purchasing Company) have established themselves to conduct test purchasing operations (using young-looking adults) on behalf of vendors, accompanied by training in appropriate behaviour for sales staff.

· Following the UK precedent, underage test purchasing of alcohol has since been adopted internationally for law enforcement purposes, for example in Australia and New Zealand, while in other countries (for example, the Netherlands) it continues to have an impact in influencing the development of policy and legislation..

· Following national enforcement campaigns in England the overall rate of alcohol sales to minors fell from 50% in 2004 to 20% in 2006 and 15% in 2007.  More recent studies in Scotland found that test purchasing was the most useful intervention and had significantly decreased underage alcohol sales

· Improved enforcement measures have contributed to a decline in underage drinking, with a national survey in 2012 reporting that the proportion of 11-15-year olds who had ever drunk alcohol had declined between 2001 and 2011 from 61% to 45%, with the proportion reporting drinking in the past week halving from 26% to 13%.

The beneficiaries of the policy changes that derive from the Swansea study include police and trading standards officers, who now have legal powers that increase their ability to protect children from the harms of alcohol, the millions of children who are so protected, and members of society in general, who are now less troubled than they would be otherwise by alcohol-related problems