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Rebecca Williams, PhD, the world’s most visited website that sells alcohol, has allowed minors to successfully purchase alcohol on their website, according to research from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

A letter published online today in the scientific journal Addiction found that teens were able to successfully buy alcohol from two different eBay alcohol sellers, with neither eBay store verifying the age of the underage buyers. In addition, the eBay sellers shipped the alcohol purchased via the US Postal Service in violation of federal law and shipped an order a second time for free.

EBay is the world’s largest online marketplace and sees sales in excess of $2,000 per second. The website’s policies require sellers to comply with all laws, but do not require age verification at the time of purchase or delivery.

“EBay sellers shipped alcohol to minors in violation of eBay’s policies, and in violation of state and federal laws,” said Rebecca Williams, Ph.D., author of the study and research fellow at the UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, where the study was conducted.  “For both wine deliveries, the seller requested FedEx Age Verification at delivery, but FedEx failed to verify the age of the recipient. Both customers received their eBay alcohol orders without ever having to show proof of age.”

According to the study, eBay’s policies established two categories of alcohol sellers: eBay-Approved Wine Sellers, and Alcohol Related Collectibles sellers, and the latter sold common liquors in violation of eBay’s own policies. Neither seller policy required specific age verification procedures.

A 2005 U.S. Supreme Court decision allowed wineries to ship to out-of-state consumers despite states’ concerns over underage sales. In the ruling, the court said that states showed little evidence that youth access to alcohol online was a problem. Williams’ research, funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Substance Abuse Policy Research Program, is the first peer-reviewed study to find minors can successfully purchase alcohol online and to examine age verification procedures for online alcohol sales. An article published in Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine showed that 45% of teens’ purchase attempts from 100 online vendors were successful despite using their real underage IDs.  The eBay sellers were the only ones to use the USPS to deliver the purchases, in direct violation of federal law, or to ship an order a second time free of charge.

The producers of ABC television’s 20/20 contacted Dr. Williams after the first article was published to discuss Internet alcohol sales for an episode on underage drinking. After discussing the study’s findings about underage alcohol sales on eBay, the producers successfully documented a teen buying alcohol on eBay for the show. Following this negative national news coverage, eBay revised its policy for Alcohol Related Collectibles sellers to allow sales of empty bottles only; its eBay-Approved Wine Seller and age verification policies remain unchanged.

Dr. Williams sent the letter from Addiction to eBay for comment but received no response.

“EBay could do much more to restrict youth access to alcohol from their website by banning alcohol sales entirely, or at the very least implementing policies requiring strict age verification at the points of order and delivery for all alcohol sales” said Williams. “This study shows that we need to continue to monitor minors’ access to alcohol online as corporate and legislative policies continue to evolve in this dynamic environment.”

Media Contact:
Sonya Sutton
UNC Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention

Williams RS.  Underage internet alcohol sales on eBay. Addiction, 108: doi: 10.1111/add.12182

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