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Group Says Teenagers Can Buy Booze Off Web But Cybermerchants Say Alarm Is Just Sour Grapes From Retailers

Sat., Dec. 13, 1997

The emerging economic struggle between traditional and cyberspace merchants was highlighted Friday as a media conflict erupted over fears of teens buying alcoholic beverages over the Internet.

“First it was cyperporn. Now it’s cyberbooze,” warned Americans for Responsible Alcohol Access, an advocacy group funded by retailers and wholesalers of beer, wine and spirits.

An undercover sting operation in New York showed underage customers could order alcoholic beverages from a World Wide Web and have them shipped to their homes without proving their age - “no questions asked,” said Dennis Vacco, the state’s attorney general.

However, Vacco conceded that he knows of no instance outside of sting operations in which a teenager has actually ordered beer, wine or liquor over the Internet and received it.

Cyberspace sellers charged that the issue is a bogus one promoted by traditional retailers and wholesalers worried about losing sales to the Internet.

“This is an emotional red herring,” said Jim Lowe, a spokesman for Hogs Head Beer Cellars, a beer-of-the-month club based in Greensboro, N.C. “I don’t care what this advocacy group calls itself, it is basically the beverage wholesalers. Their primary concerns are themselves and their profits.”

The Internet sellers say they seek proof of age for their customers and bill purchases to credit cards.

“While it is not inconceivable for an underage person to order and receive beer, wine or spirits by mail order, the actual use of that mechanism is rare,” the American Vinters Association said in a statement.

The group, representing wineries in 41 states, noted that alcoholic beverages shipped to customers are unlikely to appeal to underage customers because they cost more than those sold in stores and take longer to reach the customer.

“Our beer sells for $27 for two six-packs,” said Lowe, ridiculing the notion that a teenager would pay that much and then wait several days for delivery.

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