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Supermarket alcohol and underage drinking

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X-Ray production team X-Ray production team | 14:40 UK time, Monday, 12 July 2010

Supermarkets have to make sure they don't sell alcohol to under 18s - but are they going too far?

In the UK, you have to be 18 or over to buy alcohol. But many retailers now operate a 'Challenge 25' policy, which means even if you are over 18 but look under 25, you should expect to be asked for some form of proof of age. It's an attempt to cut down on the sale of alcohol to those who are underage.

Image of Lucy Owen behind a bar

Lucy Owen photographed behind a bar

But 31-year-old Helen Martin and 29-year-old Becky Kelly are fed up of being asked to prove their age whenever they buy alcohol at the supermarket. Helen doesn't drive and so the only proof of ID she has would be her passport and she's reluctant to carry it around with her all the time.

Becky thinks that supermarkets should show some common sense when asking for ID. She was recently asked for some proof of age when she was out shopping for a Sunday meal with her sister. She says that she wouldn't be buying an expensive bottle of wine "if I was 17 years old and my aim was to go to the park to get drunk."

According to the law not only is it illegal to sell alcohol to anyone under 18, it's also illegal for an adult to buy, or attempt to buy, alcohol on behalf of someone under 18. But are the supermarkets taking this part of the law to the extreme?

62-year-old Peter Sheldon from Swansea thinks so. He was out buying some gifts with his young son Jamie and he had asked his son to help him by carrying some alcohol to the checkout.

Image of Peter Sheldon and his son

Peter Sheldon and his son

He was outraged and humiliated when the supermarket refused to sell him the alcohol because they thought it was for Jamie, even though Peter repeatedly assured them that it wasn't. He feels that in his case the supermarket were "being totally over zealous and totally missing the point of what they're trying to achieve."

There are quite hefty penalties for shops or bars caught selling alcohol to someone underage. But it goes one step further than that - the person actually selling the alcohol also faces an on-the-spot £80 fine. And it's Trading Standards' job to check that shops stick to the law.

Helen Picton from Trading Standards is the spokesperson in Wales for age restricted products. She believes that it's not always easy to tell someone's age and, because shops selling alcohol are worried about the huge fines, they can err on the side of caution.

All the supermarkets tell us they take their responsibilities in selling alcohol very seriously. Both Asda and Sainsbury's say they moved from a Challenge 21 to a Challenge 25 policy to make it easier for their assistants, and to prevent alcohol being passed to under 18s.

Have you been challenged over your age when buying supermarket alcohol? We want to hear about your experiences and whether you think 'Challenge 25' is a good idea or not.


  • Comment number 1.

    I'd pay closer attention to the smaller off licenses who know very well the age of their local customers yet need to make sales to survive.

  • Comment number 2.

    I was asked for ID in my local tesco and even though I was annoyed given my age is 30 I left and returned with my proof. The following day i was doing a shop with my partner aged 27 and even though I took the alcohol and shopping through and went to pay for it the cashier said that she still needed to prove that she was over 18 as she was shopping with me. I questioned this and said so a mother cannot turn up with kids and buy alcohol with a weekly shop and they said no they cannot you can with young kids but not older ones. This to me seems completely ridiculous that families cannot shop together.

  • Comment number 3.

    My sister and myself aged 20 and 23 at the time went to the local tescoo to buy my parents some wine. On arrival at the counter we took our Identification which were our driving lisences out and showed the young boy. He looked at them and laughed and said that mine was "fake" because it was a different colour pink to my sister. I explained how there was a 2 year gap of us recieveing out lisences and therefore it would be slightly different. He laughed again and told us to leave.

    When my mother found out we both went down and asked to speak to thge manager explaining how there staff were not trained in fake id's as this is real, they then said "ok we now know you are 20 and believe you" this was after i prompted saying "surly you should phone the police if you think its fake."

    We were happy with this result but as we purchased the alochol of the shelf gain and looked around the store we went up to the till, the manager came up and refused us saying that because we had already been refused, we had to be refused no matter what.

    Was 2 petrol trips and my sister lieft hulmiuated.

  • Comment number 4.

    Think it should be noted that most major Supermarkets discharge their responsibilities onto the low paid (i.e. checkout operator) to implement their age policies and may result in the lowest paid bearing the brunt of the law and not the greedy food companies.

  • Comment number 5.

    This happened to me Yesterday. I'm 29 and was shopping with my wife (also 29) and 2 children (both under 3). Our shopping consisted of 1 bottle of wine, baby wipes, nappy rash cream, butter & a lego kit. I was challenged for ID by the checkout girl who called over the checkout supervisor. I was told as I couldn't verify I was over 25 they couldn't sell me the alcohol, both agreed I looked over 18 though!! I then went to find my wife who was in another part of the store & she said she would buy it as she had her driving license on her. Before getting anywhere near a checkout, the girl that had originally served me alerted her manager who pulled my wife out of the checkout queue to inform her that they had seen her talking to me & couldn't sell her the wine as she could be buying it on my behalf. We ended up having to travel out of our way to a Sainsburys local, they sold us the wine without challenge.
    Whilst I understand Supermarkets have to be careful there is a fine line between keeping within the law and maintaining customer relations. We spend £500+ every month & i'm seriously considering changing supermarkets. I think it was right for the checkout girl to challenge me but given my wife could prove her age and we both look over 18 the supervisor should have used common sense and allowed the sale. Thats what managers/ supervisors get paid the more to do.

  • Comment number 6.

    its not just customers being effected by this policy staff are under great pressure and if u miss someone who happens to be a mystery shopper you face a diaplinary like myself.causing great stress. i myself have had to be signed on the sick as a result, i do have a history if mental illness but sainsurys dont take this into consideration.we are ment to be able to make our own judgement but human error is not acceptable

  • Comment number 7.

    what if... you have your alcohol delivered by tesco and you are a parent of teenagers, they are in the home at the time of delivery, would the driver leave the shopping order? you may be buying it for your young people, or if you are young looking would he ask you for id at this time?


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