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Buying Booze and Smokes easier than ever for teens

Buying Booze and Smokes easier than ever for teens

by George McLellan

Prevention of underage smoking and drinking has been a big issue in New Zealand for some time. Research has suggested that restrictions on the ability of youth to access alcohol and tobacco products can only be effective if they are rigorously enforced. Since 2005 it has become more and more difficult for teens to purchase these products from most suburban stores. This is largely due to the tightening up of the law, and the penalties prescribed within it.

In preparing this article I asked Mana Party MP Hone Harawira about regulation of tobacco sales due to the stance that he and his party have taken on tobacco. According to Mr Harawira the current legislation provisions hold the retailer to account for age verification of customers purchasing tobacco. He explained that regular Controlled Purchasing Operations (CPOs) are undertaken by designated Smokefree Enforcement Officers to monitor the sale of tobacco to minors. These operations show that retailers do sell to minors without identification.

At the moment it is relatively difficult for teens to buy cigarettes and alcohol from stores, in the absence of a storekeeper willing to risk a hefty fine most teens rely on fake identification. But recently alcohol and cigarette retailers have found a new way of reaching the next generation of addict. In the age where everything is available online it has become easier than ever for teens to buy alcohol and tobacco. It is now possible for almost any teen to go on the internet, register an account, and buy tobacco and alcohol without ever being asked for tangible age verification. Any child with access to a credit, debit or ‘Prezzy’ card and a computer can have their fix sent directly to their door.

Most online retailers of these products do not check ID, they simply rely on their customers’ honesty. When proceeding to checkout on Countdown’s online shop (for example) customers are asked to check one box certifying that are over 18 and are not intoxicated. If this box is checked ‘yes’ then no further questions are asked, and the customer, whether actually over 18 or not, will be sent their products.

Mr Harawira said that it is a huge concern that youth are still a target for the tobacco companies. Reducing the access to tobacco is crucial in denormalising it. If the youth market is reduced or curtailed the tobacco companies have no future in this land. So it is quite astounding that online purchasing of tobacco and alcohol has become so easy.

In cases where the consumer is only interested in buying cheap alcohol or cigarettes there is little need for online retail at all; in the absence of a substantial discount or the purchaser being in a remote location or elderly it’s hard to see the point. Surely it’s easier to stroll past the shops on the way home from work to buy these deadly products. But for youth the advantage is obvious – no longer having your fake ID scrutinised by the check out operator, the risk that a family acquaintance will spot you diminished, and the embarrassment of being declined are all reasons why youth now prefer to buy their poisons online.

The law in this area seems to be fairly substantive; Section 30(1) of the Smoke-Free Environments Act 1990 provides that it is an offence to deliver any tobacco product to a person who is younger than 18 years. Although this section makes no express mention of online retail, forbidding online retail where there is a risk that youth will be customers should be considered within the purpose of the legislation.

I asked Mr Harawira whether he thinks online sale of tobacco is legal – in his opinion it is as there is currently no law preventing it. Regarding the age verification system used by many online tobacco retailers he said;

“A tick box verification process provides a loophole for those under 18 years wanting to access online sales. There is no verification process as one can simply enter a false date of birth when registering online. Preference would be to remove the sale of any tobacco from all NZL-based online retailers.”

Regarding alcohol sales, Section 155(1) of the Sale of Liquor Act 1989 provides that every person commits an offence who, being the licensee or a manager of any licensed premises, sells or supplies any liquor, or allows any liquor to be sold or supplied, to any person who is under the age of 18 years. This section also seems to be pretty substantive – it creates a strict liability offence whereby any vendor is guilty if their alcohol is sold to a minor. It is alarming that a number of online retailers have been breaching these laws for years without penalty.

Whether it is legally possible at all to sell alcohol and tobacco online is an interesting question, I believe the answer is largely dependent on how the products are sold. When it comes to preventing online retail of alcohol and tobacco to youth there are two obvious solutions. The first is to ban the sale of tobacco and alcohol online to everyone – though this would seem unfair to the thousands of of-age customers who use the services. The second solution, and probably the more workable one is to require every new user to submit age verification before their accounts become active. This would not be overly burdensome on consumers or retailers, and would at least provide some measure to prevent sales to minors.

It seems strange that many online retailers impose very few, if any restrictions on the availability of alcohol and tobacco to customers. Regardless of whether they know that their products are ending up in the hands of minors they are culpable - Ignorance of the end result should be no defence.

Some in the gambling industry have been more careful in insuring that their online trade is restricted to over 18 year olds. For example, if a person wants to set up a gambling account with the TAB they are required to bring age verification to a TAB outlet before they can begin gambling online. Surely, online retailers of dangerous and addictive products should be legally obliged to subject their customers to the same requirements – if not morally obliged.

I asked Mr Harawira whether he thinks that the law should be amended to reflect changing times, he said; “Preference for legislation that removed online retailer sales should be investigated. Effectively it is about reducing access to a deadly product that is designed to addict smokers while making a profit for the tobacco companies.”

In an age where there is no shortage of support for extra regulation of the tobacco industry it is astounding that online retailers can get away with what they’re doing. This is an issue that the lawmakers should carefully consider; in the absence of prosecutions Parliament might consider bringing the Smoke-Free Environments Act and the Sale of Liquor Act into the 21st century – at the moment the law seems to be in the grey area.

*************

George McLellan is a law student and is currently completing Professionals with IPLS, he has a particular interest in public and administrative law and New Zealand politics. He can be contacted by e-mailing george@scoop.co.nz.

ENDS

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