by Brian Hill
Capital News Service
Like other states, Virginia has strict age limits to buy cigarettes and alcohol. But young people often have little trouble purchasing those products: About one of every eight stores inspected by the state sells tobacco and booze to underage buyers.
The Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control has a program to see whether alcohol and tobacco retailers abide by the law and to crack down on businesses that sell to underage buyers.
“ABC’s underage buyer program for alcohol and tobacco began in 1998 and employs more than 100 underage buyers throughout the state of Virginia,” said Carol Mawyer, a public relations specialist at the Virginia Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control. “They earn an hourly wage of $9.98.”
For ABC inspectors, that’s a good investment – because the underage undercover agents are effective in catching retailers who flout the law.
Between July 2009 and February 2012, the state conducted more than 9,700 underage buyer inspections. Thirteen percent of the time, retailers failed the inspection by selling to the underage buyer or committing another infraction, according to an analysis of the data by Capital News Service.
In the Alexandria region of Northern Virginia, 17 percent of the businesses failed inspection. In the Richmond/Fredericksburg region, the failure rate was 16 percent. The Roanoke and Southwest Virginia regions had the lowest failure rates – 9 percent.
Under state law, it’s illegal to sell tobacco products to people under 18 and alcohol to people under 21.
Applicants must look their age to be considered for the state’s underage buyer program.
“Candidates must be 15-17 years to qualify for the tobacco program and 17-19 years to qualify for the alcohol program,” Mawyer said. “Underage buyers ‘age out’ at 20, not 21, because we prefer that all court cases be completed before the underage buyer turns 21.”
Special agents, who are sworn police officers from ABC’s Bureau of Law Enforcement, are responsible for conducting criminal investigations, with emphasis on sale to underage or intoxicated persons. They also investigate complaints that relate to licensee misconduct.
These special agents supervise the undercover operatives as they enter different establishments. That way, the adult agents are on hand to witness the sale.
“Underage buyers use only their true state-issued ID to purchase alcohol or tobacco,” Mawyer said. “If the underage buyer is asked for their ID, they must show it. And if asked their age, they must be truthful and state it.”
Selling alcohol to a minor is a Class 1 misdemeanor. Class 1 misdemeanors are punishable with up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine.
Stores that violate the law also face civil penalties and can have their ABC license suspended. The penalties can be stiff: A Henrico County convenience store that sold to an underage buyer was fined $10,000, and a cafe in Centreville, in Northern Virginia, was fined $8,000, according to ABC’s data. Both retailers were repeat offenders.
Overall, convenience stories, grocery stores, restaurants and other businesses with ABC licenses failed inspection 13 percent of the time. But one category of retailers rarely failed: the liquor stores operated by the ABC agency itself.
“ABC stores have had a 98 percent compliance rate for the past three years,” Mawyer said.
ABC is continually recruiting teenage operatives for the alcohol and tobacco underage buyer inspection program. The department has a brochure about the program at www.abc.state.va.us/enforce/UAB/underagebuyer.pdf