California, USA: On-Demand Alcohol Delivery Apps Harm Youth

The government fo California says on-demand delivery apps are driving a surge in alcohol deliveries to minors during COVID-19.

A new investigation by the Alcoholic Beverage Control (ABC) department of the state of California found that on-demand alcohol delivery apps harm youth by delivering alcohol to minors. The problem appears to be growing and is a serious concern due to the dangers associated with under-age alcohol consumption.

Food and beverage delivery services such as DoorDash, Postmates, and Uber Eats deliver alcohol and according to ABC findings these and other delivery apps are failing to protect minors. Things have gotten worse due to relaxed restrictions around alcohol takeout and delivery during the coronavirus crisis.

For example, Uber Eats does not even have an in-built age verification mechanism in their app as alcohol delivery is officially not allowed. Uber Eats’ app is programmed for alcohol sales only in Florida and select smaller markets. But now, even in places where alcohol delivery has previously not been part of Uber’s business, its drivers are instruction-less and are found to be dropping off alcoholic beverages in illegal packaging at the doorstep without ever interacting with a person. At bars and restaurants in New York City, Baltimore and elsewhere, to-go cocktails were available for order on Uber Eats despite the company‘s rules. And restaurants are using Uber Eats to deliver alcohol nonetheless.

In contrast, Caviar, DoorDash and Postmates already permit alcohol sales via their apps and have built-in systems to verify the age of customers. They allow alcohol delivery but monitor it through their apps, according to Washington Post reporting. Measures include requiring drivers to:

  1. Scan ID cards,
  2. Collect signatures in some cases, and
  3. Safely transport alcoholic beverages in order to prevent violation of open-container laws.

For example, Postmates requires sellers to specifically input their alcohol products into a portal in order to facilitate an automatic identification check if the alcoholic products were selected.

Nevertheless, reports show that Uber is not the only company with compliance problems. Also others are failing to properly check and comply with the legal age limit before delivery of alcohol.

In its investigation, the ABC ordered about 200 alcoholic beverages over multiple weekends using both on-demand apps and delivery services of individual restaurants and bars. They used decoys under the age of 21 as recipients in some cases. The investigation found:

  • Restaurants and bars illegally provided minors with alcohol about one out of every four deliveries in the test, or a 25% failure rate; and
  • On-demand apps did so four out of every five times, or a 80% failure rate.

Both on-demand apps and the restaurants they service could be held criminally liable for selling and delivering alcohol to minors. California regulators say the fault lies mostly with the on-demand delivery services, as those platforms and their drivers are more often failing to properly ID customers and abide by state rules.

According to the ABC after contacting the apps initially, failure rates improved, however it is still estimated that at least half the deliveries to minors are slipping through. While the ABC can not sanction the companies itself, they have warned that if this continues they will have to take action against drivers of delivery services or restaurants that use the delivery apps.

On-demand alcohol delivery services are causing massive harm to minors and youth in other places around the world as well. For example, in Australia a study by the University of New South Wales (UNSW) found that among 65 most popular online alcohol retailers 69% would leave alcohol unattended at an address without having verified the purchaser’s age.

Australia: Health Experts Support Laws Regulating On-Demand Liquor Delivery

Uber Eats: the new, rogue cocktail bar

The problems with on-demand alcohol delivery and youth protection appear to be pervasive. Already in April, the Washington Post reported that Uber drivers are delivering alcohol without checking the IDs of the recipients, in some cases leaving the to-go alcoholic beverages at the door without ever seeing the customer.

It is this Washington Post report that prompted to ABC investigation.

Uber Eats has become a rogue mobile bar during COVID-19, delivering cups and carafes of mimosas, margaritas and mai tais, breaking alcohol laws and violating its own rules. The app actually forbids alcohol delivery in most markets.

Restaurants and bars, as well as Uber’s ride hailing service have come under pressure during the pandemic. Therefore, the opportunity to sell alcohol is very lucrative for the involved actors. After all, alcohol sales have a high profit margin after state governments weakened alcohol rules temporarily during the global pandemic. Alcohol delivery from restaurants has opened a new market for the alcohol and hospitality industry, including Uber and other on-demand delivery services. They are eager to profit from the situation, disregarding serious concerns over youth protection.

Stay-at-home orders during the COVID-19 public health crisis have created a groundswell of demand for on-demand services as customers rely on delivery to get food from their favorite restaurants.

California weakened alcohol laws on to-go alcohol orders in March, allowing home delivery of alcoholic beverages provided they were transported in delivery drivers’ trunks and did not come in containers such as cups with straw openings. The courier is also supposed to verify the recipient’s ID upon delivery. The cocktails and mixed alcoholic drinks also have to be ordered with food.

But the Washington Post reports that the surge in business from alcohol delivery is exposing significant shortcomings in the on-demand delivery industry. After a Washington Post inquiry, the ABC finally investigated the issue.

The situation is precarious for the drivers in an environment where companies don’t have their best interests at heart. If a restaurant was found to be providing alcohol to a minor or an intoxicated customer, the restaurant and the driver who facilitated the delivery could be found criminally liable, according to the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. Uber and other delivery services say they are platforms that facilitate transactions, employing independent contractors as go-betweens. Clearly, the drivers are being put in a position to take the blame for an oversight that could leave them criminally at fault, while the delivery apps are free to pursue profit maximization in the context of weakened alcohol laws.

Some of the problems originate from Uber’s app. It doesn’t allow alcohol delivery in most markets. Therefore, alcohol orders are coded the same way as food items, meaning they can be selected regardless of whether they accompany a meal. And there is no step-by-step checklist for drivers delivering alcoholic drinks, meaning they are not instructed to verify the recipient is 21 or older by scanning their ID, ensure the recipient is not intoxicated, or otherwise obtain a signature upon delivery. In certain cases, it’s unclear whether a driver knows they are delivering cocktails to go.

Strong public health interest in preventing under-age alcohol use

Scientific evidence from the United States illustrates that early onset of alcohol use has long-lasting negative consequences for children, adolescents and youth and even into adulthood. For example, people who reported starting alcohol consumption before the age of 15 were four times more likely to also report meeting the criteria for alcohol dependence at some point later in their lives.

Alcohol use by minors is a social and public health problem of serious concern.

In the United States, alcohol use contributes to more than 4,300 deaths among people below the age of 21, each year. This includes:

  • 1,580 deaths from motor vehicle crashes,
  • 1,269 from homicides,
  • 245 from alcohol poisoning, falls, burns, and drowning, and
  • 492 from suicides.

More than 90% of the alcohol consumed by those under the age of 21 is consumed by binge alcohol users. The 2015 Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System found that among high school students in the United States, 33% consumed alcohol and 18% binge used alcohol during the past 30 days.

Underage youth who consume alcohol are more likely to carry out or be the victim of a physical or sexual assault after alcohol intake compared to their peers who do not consume alcohol. Alcohol use by minors is also strongly linked with:

  • Death from alcohol poisoning,
  • Unintentional injuries, such as car crashes,  falls, burns, and drowning,
  • Suicide and violence, such as fighting and sexual assault,
  • Changes in brain development,
  • School performance problems, such as higher absenteeism and poor or failing grades,
  • Alcohol dependence later in life,
  • Other risk behaviors such as smoking, abuse of other drugs, and risky sexual behaviors.

The earlier young people start to use alcohol, the worse the alcohol-related consequences.

The evidence shows that society has a strong public health and social welfare interest in preventing under-age alcohol use.

The WHO Global Alcohol Strategy outlines no less than 10 areas for action and intervention to prevent and reduce alcohol harm. Among those are the Three Best Buys in alcohol policy (regulating availability, affordability and marketing). Area 3 deals with “Community Action”. For this area the following policy option and intervention is recommended:

Mobilizing communities to prevent the selling of alcohol to, and consumption of alcohol by, under-age and to develop and support alcohol-free environments, especially for youth and other at-risk groups.”

For further reading from the News feed:

Australia: Alcohol Delivery Apps Fuel Harm

Australia: Alcohol Delivery Apps Fuel Harm

Sources:

The Verge: “On-demand food delivery apps are letting minors order alcohol, regulators say,” by Nick Statt.

Washington Post: “The new speakeasy: Uber Eats has turned into a rogue cocktail bar,” by Faiz Siddiqui.