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Demos: Crack down on adult ‘enablers’ to tackle teen drinking

- Think tank demands tougher punishments for parents, friends and older siblings who ‘proxy-purchase’ alcohol in order to tackle harmful underage drinking

- Implement ‘booze borders’ as part of tougher night-time policing to ban drunks from entering city centres

- Provide better training to help shop staff cope with drunk or rowdy customers

People who buy alcohol on behalf of underage drinkers should face community service, social shaming or be banned from shops, according to a new Demos report. 

The tougher sanctions would crack down on the practice of ‘proxy purchasing’ – where parents, friends or older siblings purchase alcohol from off licences to give to under 18s.

A third of 11-15 year olds (33%) admitted obtaining alcohol in the previous four weeks. Figures cited in the report reveal 1 in 5 (19%) were given the alcohol by parents, whilst the same percentage also said they had received it from their friends.

Around 1 in 7 teenagers (13%) had also asked someone else to buy alcohol for them, compared with only 3% who had illegally purchased it from a shop themselves.

The report encourages police and local authorities to use the threat of tougher punishments to discourage proxy-purchasing. It argues community service with a strong focus on alcohol-related work, such as clearing up city centres in the morning, would be a justifiable penalty.

Other ideas include banning people from their local off licence, or even prominently displaying posters by the counter to ‘name and shame’ those caught breaking the law.

Demos go on to argue police should do more to both enforce on-the-spot fines for law breakers as well as using their powers to prosecute those potentially causing a great deal of harm by enabling underage drinkers.

While the current on-the-spot fine is just £90, police potentially have the ability to impose a maximum fine of £5,000 for people convicted for purchasing alcohol on behalf of a child. However, recent health select committee figures show that only 16 people were successfully prosecuted in a four-year span.   

The report cites Portsmouth as the first local authority to introduce a ‘Proxywatch’ scheme - a 24-hour hotline for members of the public and shop staff to report incidences of proxy-purchasing. An important part of this campaign is raising awareness amongst retailers, which has helped see the test-purchase failure rate for alcohol and tobacco fall from 33% to 2.5% in just four years.

Booze borders

The Government’s most recent Alcohol Strategy blamed the availability of cheap alcohol for the problem of ‘pre-loading’ – people drinking substantially before going out into town centres.

In light of this, Demos urges a stronger focus on the role police and local authorities can play in tackling the problem of binge drinking in the night time economy.  

The report recommends police form ‘booze borders’, refusing entry into city centres for very drunk individuals in areas with high levels of alcohol-related crime or health problems.

Such a scheme has been trialled in Watford, and Demos believe the idea could be rolled out as an effective deterrent elsewhere - either turning drunk individuals away, issuing a warning, or making them sober up in a designated area.

The report goes on to suggest charging individuals a levy towards policing and NHS costs, or forcing them to carry out community work in the city centre to tackle the culture of binge drinking during a night out.

The Sobering Up report also argues:

- Local shops should offer training on how to refuse sale, or provide tools such as panic buttons, to help staff in local shops deal with rowdy, drunk customers.
- Health experts should target information campaigns specifically at parents to shift attitudes on the dangers of underage drinking.
- Young people should be shielded from ‘unsupervised’ drinking and drunkenness for as long as possible to decrease the risk of alcohol problems later in life.  

Jonathan Birdwell, Head of the Citizens Programme at Demos and author of the report, said:

“The majority of teens get their alcohol through parents, friends and older siblings, rather than buying it themselves. However, these proxy-purchasers aren’t facing the consequences for the harm they are doing.

“All the evidence shows that underage drunkenness increases alcohol risks later in life. The problem is especially severe in some parts of the country, such as Liverpool, Birmingham and Leeds, which have the highest numbers of under 18s being admitted to hospital due to alcohol.

“Our research suggests tackling certain high strength drinks, or just test purchasing shops is not sufficient. We need a tougher, smarter approach. This includes threatening parents who buy alcohol for their children to drink unsupervised with ‘social shaming’ like community service. Giving drunk and disorderly people entering city centres a ‘yellow card’ and denying them entry or forcing them to sober up would also moderate excessive pre-loading by denying people the fun night out they had planned”.

James Lowman, ACS Chief Executive said: “Every day thousands of shop owners and workers are on the front line of tackling alcohol related harm, they prevent underage sales and sales to drunks. They also engage with the wider community.

“We are pleased Demos have shone a light on the important role that shops play. The report also sets out some important challenges for the industry and policy makers about how we move forward and address the problems that remain in our communities. We look forward to the debate that will follow this important report.


The report, Sobering Up, co-authored by Jonathan Birdwell, Ian Wybron and Emma Vandore, is published by Demos on Friday 22 November 2013.

This research was supported by the Association of Convenience Stores.

Figures on where 11 to 15 year olds obtain alcohol from, cited in the report, come from a recent report from the Health & Social Care Information Centre, which can be accessed here:

For further interview or comment with author or to discuss the possibility of case studies please contact Rob Macpherson.


Rob Macpherson

020 7367 6325
(out of hours: 07809 280 643)

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