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Editorial: Booze just click away?

What with the prevalence of cyberbullying and online porn sites, parents don’t need another Internet threat to fret about when it comes to their children’s safety and well-being. And maybe this is something that doesn’t pose much of a risk.
That’s the problem, however. No one seems to know just how many teenagers are able to buy beer, wine or liquor over the Internet. Does it account for more than half a million purchases per year, as one survey suggests, or is it a far lower number, as some defenders of online alcohol sales maintain? The answer has relevancy for online vendors, delivery methods and state and federal regulations.
A study designed by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill should help policymakers as well as parents gauge the extent of illegal online booze sales. Financed with a $400,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the researchers will enlist a select group of college students (aged 18-20) who will attempt to buy alcohol online, testing how diligently Internet sellers try to weed out illegal purchases. A few years ago, a similar UNC-Chapel Hill project revealed how easily underage buyers could obtain cigarettes or other tobacco products from online sellers, and it led to an effective crackdown on such sales. Researchers are hoping to bring the same kind of scrutiny to online alcohol sales.
This much we do know: Online alcohol sales have rapidly expanded, and some Internet vendors appear to operate on little more than the honor system when it comes to verifying the age of patrons. That’s in stark contrast to the measures taken to intercept underage buyers at conventional stores. The state closely monitors alcohol sales at ABC branches and other stores that sell alcohol. Merchants who fail to adequately check IDs and sell booze to underage buyers are subject to serious penalties, including loss of their business license, as are adults who purchase booze and then pass it on to teenage drinkers. Even with these measures in place, underage drinking remains a serious problem.
If Internet sales are significantly contributing to underage alcohol purchases, online businesses, public health officials and policymakers need to be aware of the extent of abuse ó and take corrective action.

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