Alcohol charities are calling for tighter rules on online delivery firms amid growing concerns that they are making home drop-offs to problem drinkers and children aged under 18.
Recent research by Wrexham University found that age-verification measures used by suppliers and delivery firms were weak, with online checks easy to get around and couriers manually checking the age of fewer than half of alcohol purchasers.
Alcohol Change UK said the country’s licensing laws were drafted before the advent of round-the-clock deliveries of alcohol and needed to be changed. “A shopkeeper or publican may come to know someone over time, realise they are drinking to excess, and either refuse to serve them or limit what they sell them,” said Andrew Misell, director for Alcohol Change UK in Wales. “The growth of rapid doorstep-delivery companies adds a new dimension, which the legislation hasn’t yet caught up with.”
Misell said current safeguards were inadequate. “Given that the Licensing Act was written when online alcohol sales were in their infancy, it’s time for a review and for some clear guidance from the UK government on what kind of age-verification they expect to see,” he said.
Dr Katherine Severi, chief executive of the Institute of Alcohol Studies, said evidence showed that the easier it was to access alcohol, the greater the risk. “Licensing law prohibits the sale of alcohol to underage drinkers and intoxicated people but adherence to these rules becomes more challenging in contactless purchasing settings,” she said.
She added that harmful drinking had been rising. “Addressing safeguarding issues and protecting vulnerable people is more important right now, given that research shows risky drinking has increased under lockdown,” she said.
In the most serious situations, alcohol deliveries can be life-threatening. Julie O’Connor says she has been pleading with the delivery firm Uber Eats to stop helping her son smuggle 75cl bottles of vodka into the family home, as a serious relapse could kill him.
She claimed the firm’s couriers had hidden alcohol deliveries in wheelie bins and flower beds for the 21-year-old to collect so his family wouldn’t discover he had started drinking again. “I asked Uber Eats three times to stop bringing him vodka during lockdown but they refused,” she said. “In the last few weeks, my husband caught my son lowering a rucksack on rope from his bedroom for an Uber driver to fill up with alcohol.”
O’Connor, a retired council worker who lives in south London, said her son, who also has mental health problems, had been hospitalised several times and could die if he started drinking heavily again. “He has had 12 seizures in one day. More alcohol abuse could kill him,” she said.
She says she first emailed the firm in March, asking it to stop making deliveries, after she found out her son was ordering bottles of vodka every couple of days via the Uber Eats app on his phone. The family was desperately trying to “control his drinking”, she wrote, and “continuing to supply him with alcohol could contribute to him having a fatal seizure”. Yet Uber Eats insisted it could not make any changes to his account “without his permission for privacy reasons”.
O’Connor added that her son could have been much younger. “When Uber Eats drivers hid alcohol outside our house, they could not have checked his age. It is bad enough that they were delivering to a seriously ill man, but he could have been a child for all they knew.”
Professor Vic Grout, co-author of the Wrexham University study, said: “Age verification on delivery is weak. Most couriers are working zero-hour contracts, they are in a rush, they just don’t have the time to be bothered – and who can blame them?”
Although it is illegal to sell alcohol to under-18s online, the law is not clear on whether checks should happen at the time of internet purchase or at the point of delivery, or both.
Growing concerns that delivery platforms are flouting rules to protect children have prompted investigations in the US. In May, the California Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control found that third-party services were routinely delivering to underage drinkers. Australian research published this year found that 61% of users of on-demand alcohol services, including Uber Eats, were already intoxicated when they received their alcohol orders.
Referring to O’Connor’s case, Uber Eats said: “Uber Eats takes this matter very seriously, and we are currently investigating these reports. Any alcohol delivery requires a courier to check the ID of the customer to confirm identity and age, and that they are not intoxicated. We regularly remind couriers of this, and any courier found not following the correct process risks losing access to the app.”
A Home Office spokesperson said: “The government takes underage drinking very seriously and is committed to cracking down hard on criminal and irresponsible businesses that sell alcohol to children.”