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Selling Alcohol Online Survey Snares NBC
August 16, 2006
Trevor Butterworth
Industry group with interest in quashing online alcohol sales pays for survey showing teens at risk; NBC omits crucial data showing little interest in Internet booze-buying

Who is minding the Internet liquor store?” asked NBC Nightly News last week (August 9) adding another installment to the endless saga of underage drinking in America and its discontents. But the salient question is more aptly “who is minding the reporters at NBC?” Because if this story is an investigation, someone needs to go back to journalism school for a refresher course in “how to spot a scare survey that’s designed to spin you into doing a TV segment.”

After finding a group of bohemia-inspired teens who managed to buy a bottle of absinthe online – "It's a lot easier because there's no ID'ing” – says one of the underage wannabe green fairies, NBC cut to the data driving the story:

“According to a new survey to be released Thursday, one in 10 teenagers have an under-aged friend who has ordered beer, wine or liquor over the Internet — more than a third think they can easily do it — and nearly half think they won't get caught.”

Now here’s the obvious, immediate, should-lead-one-to-be-skeptical, conflict of interest: the survey was paid for by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

Though NBC conceded that the trade group is directly opposed to online alcohol sales, this wasn’t a problem because, “clearly there is a problem. Massachusetts, Texas and Virginia have launched undercover investigations of online sales to minors and they all found it very easy to do.”

“So did NBC News. Two packages were delivered to a state where mail order alcohol is illegal — one was delivered to a 15-year-old who happened to be standing in the front yard, no questions asked. Only one came marked as alcohol. The others came in brown paper wrappers. There is no indication anywhere wine is in one, grain alcohol in the other.

And some online sellers blatantly flaunt the law. One Web site says it ships "discreetly in plain packaging." It warns making absinthe is illegal, but adds: "Don't worry we don't think the Feds will shoot a stun grenade through your window for placing a little online order."

The absinthe-quaffing patrons of the Moulin Rouge may debauch themselves because they “can-can-can,” but there is a difference between something being easy to do and something being done. Online vegetable shopping is easy to do, but it is not one of the Internet’s greatest success stories.

And here’s the really interesting thing about the survey: you can read the data and come out with the opposite conclusion to NBC: despite most teens using the Internet daily and spending up to six hours online, and despite almost half believing they could buy alcohol online, only two percent had ever done so (and almost half of those surveyed were aged 18 to 20, who either being at college or in the workforce would be much more likely to have greater income, their own credit cards, personal Internet access, and not live at home with their parents).

The lack of Internet-driven inebriation is, in fact, what struck USA Today in a story headlined: Teens not rushing online to buy wine, survey shows.

“A year after the Supreme Court made it easier for wineries to ship products to customers in a different state, a new survey indicates that teens haven't necessarily rushed to use the Internet to buy alcohol, as critics of the court's decision have feared.”

And given that ninety-eight percent of teens have never bought alcohol online, one must return to the fact that this survey was paid for by the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America. As Ken Shepherd of the Business & Media Institute usefully pointed out, 

“A review of the group’s Web site shows that WSWA doesn’t just compete with direct sales of alcohol, it actively defends the legal and regulatory scheme under which it profits by encouraging or mandating wholesaling over direct-to-consumer shipping….  

If you can't follow the data, at least follow the money.