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Shootout at the checkout

11 Jun 2010 by Jancis Robinson

Nick sent me this posting by Kate Hawkings of the university city of Bristol on the British Guild of Food Writers' forum yesterday. I thought it would be of particular interest to British wine lovers, and may perhaps entertain wine lovers elsewhere as an example of how crazy the retail environment in the UK has become.

To give a bit of context, I should point out that there is well-justified national concern in the UK about the extent to which young people drink, and the role played by supermarkets in supplying them.  

Kate says she would be interested to read your feedback.

I've just returned from a mother-daughter bonding trip to Sainsbury's [one of the UK's biggest supermarket chains- JR]. Our shopping included two bottles of red wine. When we got to the checkout my daughter was asked for ID.
'Because you might be buying the wine for your daughter.'
'But I'm not. I'm buying it for me.'
'I still need to see ID.'
As it happens, my daughter is 18 and had ID on her, so I was allowed - thank you, Lord Sainsbury! - to buy my wine.

I asked the Supervisor about the rule. I was told that if cashiers allow adults to buy alcohol which turns out to be for an under-age drinker, it is the cashier who faces a £500 fine.
'And how would you find out if that was the case? Would you follow them home? Would you stake out the house and peer into the windows?'
'Well, erm, no.'
'So how exactly would you determine whether or not the purchase was legitimate?'
'Well, I suppose we can't really ... it's just company policy.'

It gets better. 'It's company policy to ID anybody who looks between 18 and 25 and is with somebody buying alcohol.'
'But anybody over 18 is allowed to buy alcohol; that's the law.'
'Yes, but there are a lot of university students around at the moment. They've just finished their exams, you know.'
Steam starts coming out of my ears at this point. 'But university students ARE over 18'
'Yes, but they might look younger.'

Deep breath. I changed tack. 'So you wouldn't ID somebody who looks, say, 14?'
'Erm, no.'
'Even if they were with somebody buying crates of Bacardi Breezers, cooking vodka and cheap cider?'
'Erm.....well, obviously we use our discretion, but at the end of the day we have to support our cashiers'
'Discretion? Had my daughter been under 18 you wouldn't have allowed me to buy my wine because your cashier had chosen to ID her? Even though I am quite clearly her middle aged mother?'
'Well, yes, as I say we have to support our cashiers' decision...'

I began to feel sorry for the poor woman so I resisted the temptation to crack open the wine there and then, drink the whole bottle and be sick on her shoes. I left... seething.

Does this herald the end of the dark and dangerous days when teenage children hovering around the age of 18 helped their parents with the shopping? Will supermarkets, faced with irate parents, soon rue the day they embraced this nonsensical policing? Or are they trumpeting their own part in the Battle Against Under-Age Drinking so loudly, and to the point of absurdity, so the government will continue to allow them to sell vast quantities of cut-price booze to students? There are 80,000 students in Bristol with, I'm sure, larger booze budgets than the grumpy middle aged mothers.

Time to open that bottle!


My parents always took the attitude that if I was taught a responsible attitude to wine at home, there was less chance that I would go out and get wasted. Worked pretty well in retrospect.That seems to tally with the "give alcohol to children over 5".Why you should then not be allowed to buy it?!? Mystifying. As one commenter says: send them outside while you shop. 

4 Jul 2010 15:42 by Eva Pressel-Roemer

This is not a joke. It's the second or third slice into the salami for the new prohibitionists, and there are many yet to come. This seeming madness is enabled by the unquestioning acceptance (sadly reflected in Jancis Robinson's introductory note) that there is a growing and real problem with young people drinking. This is now morphing into an increasingly wide acceptance that there is a similar problem with older generations too. As is often the case with moral panics, we see two related phenomena: a belief in horrors that have never been personally experienced or witnessed, and a belief that the world is putrefying morally, usually within the space of a generation (say 20-25 years). We also see statistics that are gathered in a changing moral-poltical climate, and which reflect new social policy priorities leading to data gathering that is highly inconsistent or incomparable over time. When you tell every A+E department to ensure that any incident where alcohol has been consumed by the patient or by an assailant is recorded as alcohol-related, then you get more such incidents reported. People over the age of 25 have heard about, indeed seen on TV, scenes of drunken pandemonium as young men barrel into each other outside bars and young women stagger to an undignified squat in their heels and glad rags on the kerbside (located next to the gutter, as no teetotalling Daily Mail journalist fails to notice). The idea that the rather meek and mild youth of today invented brawling and boozing is fantastical, but is retailed like gospel, especially those who envy the capacity and the opportunity to party that accompanies youth. The term "binge drinking" (which has no consistent definition, but has been subtly transmuted from the old meaning of a drinking bout that lasted more than a day, to roughly mean drinking more than 5 runits of alcohol in one session) is so widely applied as to taint any normal Friday night or Saturday dinner party with an odour of guilt and health unease. After all, in the eighties we didn't binge drink, did we? But now, it appears, very many of us do (half a bottle of red wine, remember, in one night): what is society coming to? The further the people who hear and read and watch these tales are from the age of 25, the more they seem to believe that there is something new going on here.  There is. But it is not young people setting out of a Friday evening to get drunk, Nor is it young women joining in. Nor is it true that young people are drinking younger and younger. Nor yet the consumption of two and a half pints of beer or half a bottle of wine in a night! The novelty is the state's attitude to alcohol consumption, starting with the adolescent and young adult -- and increasingly applying to all of adult society. Until about ten years ago, there existed in Britain a quite subtle and quietly efficient social contract with relation to teenage drinking. Implicitly recognizing that an interest in recreational drugs largely coincides with adolescent interest in sex and the social life that surrounds exploration of sex, the licensing authorities and the police (with wide tacit acceptance in society at large) permitted a slow ramp up to full drinking over the age range of 13 to 18. The older you were, the better you were able to hold your drink, the more you could fit into an adult environment (both in looks and behaviour); the less likely you were to be prevented from drinking in pubs. Some pubs in most towns were known to be preferred by the police for under-age drinking, as that meant they knew where to concentrate their attention for problems, some pubs were palpably unwelcoming to young drinkers, and others would tolerate small numbers and quiet couples or groups. Accompanying this, parents bought drink for their teenage children to take to parties. Interestingly, wine and beer could be bought legally in on-premises by 16-year-olds to accompany a meal. (I don't know whether this "loophole" has been closed -- but if it hasn't, imagine trying to get served on that basis in the current climate!)  Today, as a result of ever more clamourous applications of "zero tolerance", young people steal wine or spirits from their parents, or bribe down-and-outs to by eight-packs of lager, and drink it in the park or on the street, or at each other's homes. But you can be sure they still drink. They just have less opportunity to be absorbed into and learn the ways of social drinking among adults. The outgoing Chief Medical Officer has recommended that this pernicious, repressive, mean-spirited and foolish policy be deepened by trying to create a climate where it is socially odious to allow alochol to touch the lips of anyone under the age of 16, even in the context of a meal with parents. These official recommendations are not to be taken lightly: they become absorbed into the bloodstream of society, and at the limit are taken into account in social welfare cases or in deciding the suitability of foster carers etc.  I believe that this anti-youth push is conditioned by a wider campaign, inspired by the decrease in young adults as a proportion of the population, to increase the productivity and length of working life, through "lifestyle modification". An interview by James Blitz with Tony Blair in the FT in 2006 captured this thrust in government policy on smoking, drinking and obesity.  A parallel, more diffuse motivation is the desire, again expressed from the top of government under New Labour, to "roll back" the 1960s: the hedonism, the youthful revolt, the decay of respect for authority, the excessive emphasis on individual rights etc. This in turn chimes with the increasingly patriotic and militaristic discourse and displays accompanying the recent wars waged in the Middle East and Central Asia. Wars always engender official anxiety about the public's health and moral fibre.     No joke at all, then. This is a renewed temperance movement. Like the movement of the ninteenth and early twentieth century, it builds a logic to prohibitionism. But this is a repression that chooses not to speak its name. Taking a lead from the successful "tobacco control" movement, the salami tactics of "nudging" are used to habituate the population at each stage. The first, and most critical, stage has already passed -- it is simply accepted (take the BBC as a weathervane) in official public opinion, that "we have a problem with drinking to excess in this country". The squeeze has begun with zero tolerance for the young. Here are some predictions on the course that will be run unless there is some determined opposition: Minimum prices for alcohol Outlawing advertising of alcohol (no more emails about the en primeur campaign or from Waitrose or Majestic) Raising the legal minimum age for purchasing alcohol to 21 Raising the legal minimum age at which alcohol can be consumed to 16 or 18 or 21 Limiting the amount of alcohol that can be imported by or on behalf of any given individual in a certain period Limiting the amount of alcohol that can be purchased by any given individual in a certain period (like the nutty "no more than 32 500mg paracetamol at a time" rule in Britain) Prohibiting the consumption of alcohol in front of persons under 16 in a public bar or restaurant (back to Tizer, crisps and the bench outside the pub, except that would be child neglect) Reducing the blood alcohol limit for driving to zero Maximum alcohol levels for beer/wine/spirits etc Employer bans (if not laws) on having consumed alcohol for n hours before starting work (preventing drinking at lunch time, for example), irrespective of occupation No drinking in public places such as parks and beaches Crazy? As crazy as the idea of banning smoking in pubs would have seemed in 1984. Your children could well be coming home from school pretty soon, to tell you reproachfully that they wish you wouldn't drink wine with your meals, because they want their Mum and Dad to live to see them grow up. The madness is amongst us.    

12 Jun 2010 19:03 by Alastair Green

Not much to say really.Stupidity has no limits! Where is the old British Common sense?

12 Jun 2010 05:58 by Isa Bal

I would suggest that all the unhappy campers here move to America. Here we allow old winos to buy hooch for high school kids, as long as there is something in it for Mr Wino.   Also, we allow people to pack heat, so shooting the cashier is always a possibility.

11 Jun 2010 23:29 by Mel Knox

Having worked in an off licence where one of the other staff sold to an under age person who was sent in by Trading Standards as a test and yes he thought they were over 18 but didn't ask for ID (they were 17 and company policy was to ask for ID if you thought someone was under 25) all hell let loose. The assistant was immediately suspended and faced a fine and a record, (he resigned in the end rather than have to put on his CV that he was sacked) the responsible person faced a fine and the shop faced losing its licence. Problem is it used to be policy to ask for ID if you thought the person was under 21 thus giving some headroom but when the penalties were increased everyone wanted more headroom. It seems that if the powers that be increase the penalties again even those of us over 30 might need to carry ID !!! I agree that it is mad not to sell to someone just because the person with them has no ID (and once you have asked you have to see ID or refuse) but society has decided it does not like drunks in the street and so laws are made which sometimes have strange results.

11 Jun 2010 17:03 by Trevor Partridge

Totally ridiculous, but similar instances have made it into the UK press before, e.g. here where a mother was refused wine as she was shopping with her 17 year old daughter (with the decision defended by Morrison's HQ).  In the same article Asda admits to its staff having been "over cautious" in allowing a mother to buy wine while with her 14 year old son but insisting he was not allowed to help her carry it to the car!

11 Jun 2010 16:36 by Mark Gallagher

Remind me, please, everyone, not to let me go shopping with my, surprisingly mature, 19 and 21 year old children? Meanwhile, how about sending said person without an ID/child/great-grandmother outside and try again. Lunacy has indeed beset the multiples, who still persist in selling the 3 for £10s that encourage binge-drinking....and, by the way, Stephen is correct about the UK age over 5 AT HOME, but I wouldn't recommend it. Anecdote: Whilst I was at Uni, during out annual Beer-Bike Relay between the Colleges, the 6-year old child of friends of mine managed to work her way to the 'chuggers' (beer contestants') keg and managed to drink one whilst her father, one of our more athletic English profs, was 'throwing'  and 'catching' us 'bikers'. (FYI, you get a much better start and finish if you don't have to start or finish yourself, and indeed you can chug much more quickly if you use flat beer (ick!) and cut a nice biggish hole in the bottom of the tin and seal the rough edges with wax. But the rules required that you didn't let more than 3 drops spill onto the asphalt, so you had to cover the hole with the palm of your hand until you had the tin tipped up to your mouth. Record for a half-pint was a fellow team member-1.8 seconds!) I returned from my leg of biking and said young girl was weaving around all over the place. Lesson learnt, at least by me.  

11 Jun 2010 15:21 by Kat Crosby

No surprise to a foreigner who has followed the UK slowly but surely becoming the Soviet Kingdom. You even have x million cameras to make sure that these laws are not breached, or as someone put it 1984 cameras for each "crime" that was being brought to court. The treatment of photographers, tourists and alike is equally absurd: 

11 Jun 2010 11:30 by Kim Gammelgard

Moreover, as I understand the law, a parent is allowed to give alcohol to any of their children over the age of 5. Perhaps it would make sense to ban the sale of alcohol to anyone with a baby, in view of the legal situation.

11 Jun 2010 10:12 by Stephen Dodds

I faced exactly - exactly! - the same scenario in Asda on a sunny Bank Holiday Sunday. I was carrying a 6 pack of Coronas, and found myself waiting by the till while my girlfriend went to get limes. When she returned, she was told she wouldn't be allowed to buy the beer because I didn't have ID. She is 29, I am 28, she had her I ID, I didn't, so no beer for us! All the other shops were shut, so we went home with nothing! We were flabergasted for hours...   

11 Jun 2010 09:53 by Anish Patel

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