Ireland is moving into “dangerous territory” as a swell in delivery services during the pandemic gifts unprecedented access to alcohol for underage drinkers, campaigners have warned.
Alcohol Forum, a charity working against harmful drinking, said “really risky practices are creeping in” around drinks sales with greater enforcement needed against illegal delivery services as well as tougher regulation for the licensed off-sales trade.
Paula Leonard, the organisation's head of community action, said 24-hour "dial a drink" services are operating "outside any licensing regime", mainly in Dublin but springing up in provincial towns countrywide during the crisis.
“That is an enforcement issue and it will grow and grow rapidly if nothing is done about,” she said.
Illegal sellers buy large quantities of alcohol at licensed retailers and then sell it on through delivery at a significant mark up. Many advertise on social media.
Ms Leonard said there is also a growing problem “exacerbated by the Covid crisis” of off-licences delivering to customers without first checking their age.
Pollsters Red C carried out a survey for the charity in May which found almost one in 10 people who drink had used alcohol delivery services over the previous 12 months. Three per cent paid for the alcohol over the phone, 2 per cent when it arrived at their home, and 1 per cent bought it from the boot of a car or paid a taxi driver for it.
Ms Leonard said the figures, when extrapolated for the population, translates into “more than 100,000 breaches” of existing regulations, where off-sales retailers have to be satisfied at the point of purchase that a customer is not underage.
“Existing laws are predicated on place-based selling of alcohol and there is no question it is completely outmoded, it needs to be overhauled,” she said. “Currently there is no effective way of doing age verification and the danger right now is this is a growing issue nationally.”
Even before the pandemic, online sales of alcohol were globally predicted to be growing 15 per cent every year, according to Ms Leonard.
Studies in the United States, Wales and Australia show young people have "huge ease of access in circumventing age verification processes when it comes to purchasing alcohol online".
“The whole picture is moving very quickly and in Ireland we have a very complicated mix of regulated, unregulated, legal and illegal selling, and it absolutely has been exacerbated by the Covid crisis,” she said.
“It is very dangerous territory. We are not trying to get rid of drink delivery services but we want to see better regulation and a rational approach to doing it, because at the minute it is a higgledy-piggledy approach – it is all over the place.”
Alcohol Forum is seeking a meeting with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to urge legislation that would legally define drink deliveries, insist on age verification at the point of sale and again at the point of delivery.
Delivery drivers should also have to check for intoxication, said Ms Leonard.
"We can't have the Department of Health having a strategy and the Department of Justice ignoring the facts that licensing legislation relating to this issue isn't fit for purpose," she said. "It is easier now than ever for underage people to access alcohol."
Asked by Independent Donegal TD Thomas Pringle about tightening regulations, Ms McEntee said existing laws for off-sales still apply to deliveries, including it being an offence to sell to anyone under the age of 18.
Ms McEntee suggested video call technology – such as FaceTime or WhatsApp – meant there were no “practical impediments” to retailers verifying the age of customers in advance of delivery.
The Government Alcohol Advisory Group has previously ruled alcohol ordered by telephone or text messaging and paid for on delivery is "illegal", the Minister pointed out. "The group recommended that the gardaí target 'dial-a-can' and similar delivery services with a view to prosecuting the offending licensees," she said.
Ms McEntee said she is open to reviewing the issue “should compelling objective evidence emerge indicating that a further examination of the legislation regulating these matters is warranted”.
Mr Pringle accused Ms McEntee of taking a “hands-off” approach to the issue.
“There has been a move in the last number of years that alcohol is more a health issue, rather than a justice issue, but the responsibility on sales still lies with the Department of Justice, in terms of the policing of it,” he said.