A few months ago, the NBWA in response to an odd query from the Surgeon General tried to blame underage drinking on the Internet in an effort to both seem caring and also continue to fight interstate alcohol shipping as the bogeyman for the 21st Century. To any trade organization who represents monopoly interests, of course, any hint of legislative change that threatens that control will be a bogeyman. In March it was beer distributors, now it’s wine wholesalers in the form of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America (WSWA) who are attempting to further their own agenda with misleading information, at best, and downright falsehoods, at worst.
They’ve released a study that they sponsored that concluded exactly what they wanted it to. How convenient. How manipulative. Of course they call the survey a “landmark.” I call it what it really is: bullshit. Before you dismiss my assessment out of hand, read John Stauber and Sheldon Rampton’s wonderful books Toxic Sludge is Good For You! and Trust Us, We’re Experts! Both go a long way toward explaining how seemingly scientific and unbiased studies are in reality propaganda created by a very sophisticated public relations industry.
The WSWA, like the NBWA, has one function, and one function only. And it isn’t trumped up concerns about our nation’s youth. It’s sole purpose is to advance the agenda of wine wholesalers and distributors. Almost all of these wholesalers enjoy very profitable monopolies that are threatened by direct sales over the Internet. So that’s the bogeyman. It will corrupt our children. It’s always about the children. It’s never about money or business. My child needs their protection. Hooray. I no longer have to worry because the WSWA is on the case. It’s easy, really. All they have to do is make up some statistics and scare parents who are too busy to think for themselves.
Look at the language they employ. The study “confirmed” findings, it didn’t come to any conclusions based on raw data. Instead it went looking to “confirm” that which supported a predetermined conclusion. Let’s examine their so-called conclusions:
- 3.1 million minors (12%) ages 14-20 report having a friend who has ordered alcohol online.
- Two percent (551,000) of those ages 14-20 say they personally have bought alcohol online.
- As exposure and awareness of buying alcohol online increase, even more minors can be expected to purchase wine, beer and liquor online. This is consistent with a 2003 National Academy of Sciences report which confirmed kids are buying alcohol online and that increasing use of the Internet will make this problem worse in the future.
- Nearly one in 10 (9%) of those ages 14-20 have visited a site that sells alcohol.
- One-third – nearly 8.9 million ages 14-20 nationwide – are open to the possibility of an online alcohol purchase before age 21.
- Seventy-five percent say their parents aren’t able to control what they do on the Internet.
- Among those ages 14-20 who have tried alcohol, 75% tried liquor, followed by wine at 64%, beer at 60% and wine coolers at 55%.
Wow, they have a friend. And that friend has a friend, and so on. That’s how urban legends begin … I have a friend who has a friend and …. This is a statistic that says absolutely nothing. First of all, even if accurate there’s no way to know if these 3.1 million friends are all different or all the same. Perhaps there’s only one guy but everybody knows him. That’s just as plausible as trying to conclude 12% of minors are buying alcohol online. Sure, they don’t come out and say that, but that’s clearly the inference.
Since when did 2% of anything become significant. Again, let’s assume that the number is correct and no bragging occurred on the part of those surveyed. Should we restrict adult’s access to legal products because some small percentage of the population will abuse them? How does that number compare to other methods minors use to get alcohol? I’m willing to bet fake IDs and over-21 friends far exceed that number. Can we really stop 100% of minors getting their hands on alcohol? Should we even try? Because every barrier we put up also makes it more it more difficult for adults, too. Kids are kids. They’ll try to do whatever they can to grow up too quickly. I did it. You did it. We’re not going to stop human nature. The more we prohibit something, the more attractive it becomes. So what if these kids bought alcohol online. It’s not the Internet’s fault. It’s the same argument the gun lobby uses so effectively. Guns don’t kill people, people do. The Internet is just a vehicle. You don’t restrict access to it for everyone because a few abuse it. Besides, where were these kids parents? What’s their story? Without that information, raw numbers are meaningless.
Again, this is not a fact but a flimsy extrapolation based on questionable (and uncited) information.
So what? It’s not illegal for minors to read about alcohol, is it? Minors are allowed in grocery stores that sell alcohol without being corrupted. What’s the difference? And it’s curious that while 9% have visited an alcohol website, 12% have a friend who’ve bought online, while only 2% have actually done so. Is it just me, or do those figures not quite add up.
When I was 14-20, I would have been open to it, too. When this generation of 14-20-years olds are my age, the next crop of 14-20-year olds will almost certainly also be open to it. So what? It’s meaningless hyperbole.
Is that a failure of the internet or parents? We have to realize as a society that we can’t protect our kids from everything. We have to raise them to deal with things on their own. Parents can’t really control their kids at school, either, but nobody’s suggesting we should do away with the public school system and home school everybody.
Another head scratcher. I’m not even sure what this adds to the picture. I’m not sure why it’s included here.
Happily, I’m not the only one who thinks this false concern for children is anything but a thinly veiled attempt to maintain the status quo. A grassroots organization known as Free the Grapes has released a counter-statement also calling into question the tactics of the WSWA.
Here’s the bulk of their statement, which was titled “Majority of States Allow Regulated Wine Direct Shipping, But Wine Wholesalers Continue ‘Chicken Little’ Strategy“:
The wine wholesaler cartel today trotted out a tired argument already dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court, the Federal Trade Commission, and state alcohol regulators.
The intent of the Wine & Spirits Wholesalers of America’s “survey” on underage access is to deflect attention from their real motivation: economic protectionism. Over the past 30 years, the wholesale cartel has consolidated from 11,000 wholesalers to an oligopoly of two or three per state. The wholesalers, not consumers, have been deciding which wines are available. But now, the courts, Federal Trade Commission, and state legislatures are supporting consumer choice and responding with reasonable regulations and controls.
While the WSWA’s press release quoted that the “survey” results showed a “dangerous trend,” USA TODAY was unconvinced. The newspaper reported yesterday that “It’s unclear how many teens were buying alcohol online before the court’s ruling, but the TRU survey suggests such purchases are rare.”
Here are the facts:
- Fact: Thirty-three states now allow interstate, winery-to-consumer direct shipments, and several more are in the process of creating the legal mechanisms to do so. No state has ever repealed pro direct shipping legislation based on non-compliance, including underage access. See www.wineinstitute.org for a list of the state laws.
- Fact: The Federal Trade Commission rebuked the underage access argument in its survey of alcohol regulators in 11 states that allow direct shipments, concluding that states with procedural safeguards against shipments to minors report “few or no problems.” Click the following link to read a summary of the FTC’s July 2003 study, “Possible Anticompetitive Barriers to E-commerce: Wine”: http://www.ftc.gov/opa/2003/07/wine.htm
- Fact: The U.S. Supreme Court’s 2005 ruling in Granholm v. Heald dismissed the underage access red herring, and favored a level playing field and consumer choice in wine via wineries and retailers
- Fact: The wine industry supports the enforcement mechanisms available to states in the event of an alleged illegal shipment. The “21st Amendment Enforcement Act” was supported by the WSWA and signed into law in October 2000, allowing state Attorneys General to access federal courts to pursue litigation for alleged violations of state law regulating alcohol shipping. No winery or retailer has ever been prosecuted under the 21st Amendment Enforcement Act.
Additionally, alleged violations of state laws governing alcohol shipments can be reported by any state to the Trade & Tax Bureau for investigation. Penalties for infractions can include revocation of a winery’s basic permit to produce wine. Finally, the wine industry’s model direct shipping bill for wine stipulates that the winery or retailer holding a direct shipping license has consented to the jurisdiction of the state issuing the license, and the state’s courts concerning enforcement of the law. A copy of the model bill is located at www.freethegrapes.org.
“Especially now that the courts and capitols support consumer choice in wine, and many more enforcement tools are available, states should be working to ensure that online sellers are complying with all laws,” said Jeremy Benson, executive director, Free the Grapes! “Common sense and the actual experience of state regulators demonstrate that direct shipping is not the common means for illegal youth access to purchase wine, beer or spirits. Underage access is a serious issue, but it won’t be solved by special interest surveys geared to protect their turf by targeting a legal sales channel for adults,” he added.
The Wine Institute also posted a statement questioning the WSWA’s press release and survey findings.
The Wine and Spirits Wholesalers also have another website up called Point. Click. Drink. that is even more egregiously misleading than it’s main website — if you can believe that — which purports to educate young people. Unfortuntately it’s riddled with misinformation and outright fabrications, especially the Fact vs. Fiction section, which is almost entirely creative fiction. I considered going over their so-called facts point by point, but Free the Grapes put up their own counter to it: Point,Click, Think! There’s some great information there. For example, there’s this gem from USA Today, who wasn’t rolling over like NBC as far back as 1999, when they wrote:
“The [wholesaler] industry’s tactics are a civics lesson in how scare stories, lobbying and political money can be used to limit consumer choice through special-interest protections.”
— USA TODAY editorial, July 7, 1999
The WSWA even got NBC to bite on their press release and spread some nonsensical fears in a story entitled “Who is minding the Internet liquor store?” It’s by “Chief consumer correspondent” — whatever that means — Lea Thompson and it tells the tale of some kids who bought a bottle of absinthe online after watching the movie Eurotrip. Like much on the evening news, it spreads fear and highlights breakdowns in security all along the process. But it concludes, of course, by accepting the WSWA survey without question even dismissing the fact that the survey was commissioned by the WSWA by saying simply that “clearly there is a problem.” Not once is it suggested that the problem is with the security systems or other places the process breaks down. It was too easy to order online and the delivery company just gave the alcohol to a fifteen-year old. It didn’t occur to them to examine the breakdown in protocol by the delivery service. They got a free pass. NBC didn’t even mention it as a part of the problem. Yikes. Now that’s hard-hitting journalism.
But even the FTC examined E-commerce and concluded that online alcohol sales “Lowers Prices, Increases Choices in Wine Market.” The report, which was approved 5-0, refutes much, if not all, of the WSWA and NBWA’s ridiculous assertions that not banning the sales of alcohol online will lead to an epidemic of underage drinking. This time around the accusations were leveled by the wine wholesalers but much of it applies similarly to the beer industry. With so much money at stake, this issue isn’t going away anytime soon. The monopolies that constitute our alcohol distributors and wholesalers will defend those monopolies by any means necessary. Sometimes maintaining the status quo does make sense, as it does in certain aspects of the three-tier system, but other times it is clearly bad for consumers. This is one of those times. Direct shipping of alcohol from manufacturers or retailers interstate and intrastate should be legal in every state. That it’s not already shows how powerful the lobbying arms of alcohol distributors and wholesalers really are and how effective propaganda can be.