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N.Y. targets Net bootleggers

The New York attorney general is on the warpath against what he says is the latest Net evil: sales of alcohol to minors online.

    New York state attorney general Dennis Vacco is on the warpath against what he says is the latest Net evil: sales of alcohol to minors online.

    "These Internet bootleggers routinely ignore state laws, making no attempt to determine if purchasers are of legal age to buy their products. As a result, teenagers who can't legally buy a can of beer at the corner store, can get virtually any type of alcohol beverage delivered right to their doorstep," he said in a statement.

    "This is big business--$1 billion and growing as fast as they can set up Internet home pages and toll-free phone lines," he added.

    In a letter sent to attorneys general in the other 49 states, Vacco said, "What's really at issue is something very fundamental--the responsible, lawful control of and access to alcoholic beverages. How far are we going to allow technology and expediency to usurp safeguards against underage access and state revenues? In New York, we are going to take a very firm stand against this illegal activity."

    Online merchants, however, say they are not in the business of selling alcohol to minors, and argue Vacco's logic.

    "It's absolutely our policy that we don't ship alcohol to minors," said Robert Olson, president of online wine sales site Virtual Vineyards.

    He pointed to several steps the company takes to ensure the alcohol is being sent to and received by adults, including a prompt on the site that asks the user to verify that they are 21 or older; a policy that phone order-takers ask if the person placing the order is 21 or older and that the person receiving the order is as well; and a stamp on the boxes in which the product is shipped that instructs delivery personnel to seek the signature of an adult at least 21 years old.

    Olson also disputes Vacco and others' belief that the Net is a more desirable venue for minors seeking alcohol.

    "As a high school student, I wouldn't have had the patience to wait for an expensive bottle of wine from California if all I was after was a quick buzz," he said.

    Olson said he thinks if anything, technology and the Internet will help cut down on minors having access to alcohol.

    "Net technologies are going to challenge the faulty current distribution channels," he said, predicting that as smart cards, digital signatures, and credit card authorization technologies mature, the means currently used by children to get alcohol will be minimized.

    But Vacco's backers say the ease-of-use the Net allows only will fuel what they say is a surge in alcohol-related car accidents and other injuries. "Consumer freedom and convenience are desirable goals, but not at the expense of the safety and well-being of the youth of our nation. Direct shipping to the doorstep means only one thing--more young people will be coming through the doors of my emergency department. And, that is something all of us should try to prevent," Barbara Foley, executive director of the Emergency Nurses CARE organization, said in a statement.

    Of course, Vacco and his backers' interests are not strictly about sales to minors. A statement on Vacco's Web site says that "New York loses as much as $15 million a year from the failure to collect tax on illegal, interstate alcohol sales."

    Liquor wholesalers also fear the competition increasing Net sales could generate. Americans for Responsible Alcohol Access, of which Vacco is honorary chair, held a press conference last week about the issue of minors purchasing alcohol online. The group is largely funded by liquor wholesalers, however, CNN reported. Many online merchants say the group's efforts are a tactic to halt their business and cut into the growing competition to real-world sales.

    There is one thing about which both sides agree: the evils of pornography on the Net.

    "In a nation of latchkey kids, direct shipment [of alcohol] is like giving out two sets of keys--one to the front door and another to the liquor cabinet. In addition to pornography on the Net, working parents now need to worry about whether their teenagers also are ordering alcohol on the Internet,'' said Barry W. McCahill, executive director of Americans for Responsible Alcohol Access, in a statement.

    "Some of the pornography out there on the Internet is truly shocking," Olson said. "If you ask me, that's at a greater risk of causing a lot more damage to young people than a $40 bottle of Chardonnay."