Rebecca Williams may have taken on Big Tobacco, but that experience didn't prepare her for her recent adventure in the wine business. Williams is the lead author of the May study that looked at whether minors could buy alcohol on line. It found, not surprisingly, that they could, and Williams found herself on the receiving end of some less than complimentary comments.
As one Winestream Media stalwart described her: Someone who did the study for no other reason than to burnish her resume.
"It's not the same kind of backlash when we did tobacco studies," says Williams, "and I don't know that I've seen a lot of it. What was surprising were all the questions about where the money came from to fund the study. I was surprised that people thought the study was paid for by wine distributors, that we would do that."
Ah, the naivety of the academic (who got her money from a legitimate public health foundation). Williams, who thought she was doing public health research, walked right into the biggest controversy in the wine business today -- the debate over the future of the three-tier system.
She wanted to find out if it was easy for minors to buy booze over the Internet, and instead found herself in the middle of the fight between the distributors and wholesalers who want to strengthen three-tier and those who want to reform it. How this happened and what it means, after the jump:
Which is not exactly what the study was about. If they had done any reporting, they would have discovered:
• That the study followed in the footsteps of similar efforts to detail underage Internet cigarette purchases, and that the results were similar. It's possible -- even easy -- for minors to buy alcohol over the Internet, perhaps even easier than it was to buy cigarettes. Prepaid debit cards are completely anonymous, and what teenager wouldn't appreciate that?
• That we can argue as much as we want about how many kids actually buy wine on-line, but that's not what matters. What matters is that they apparently can, and that the tobacco studies that showed the same thing led to stronger state and federal laws regulating on-line cigarette sales. Lawmakers and underage drinking go together like biscuits and gravy. That's what the wine business should be worried about, and not Williams' supposed lust for academic glory.
• That the study's methodology seems sound. The underage purchasers bought the cheapest booze available and as little as the retailer would allow, which was often just one bottle -- with free shipping, too. In this, the study replicated what teens do when they try to buy beer at a convenience store.
• That on-line sales allow younger teens the opportunity to buy booze that they wouldn't have in person. Most clerks can recognize someone who is 12 or 13, even with a fake ID. That's not going to happen on-line.
• That it's important to note that the pre-teens and teens who may buy alcohol over the Internet do not think like the middle-aged white men who make up the Winestream Media and insist that pre-teens and teens don't want to buy alcohol over the Internet. Thunderbird, anyone? There is a cultural and generational gap, and anyone who denies it is kidding themselves.
• That Williams is a smart and savvy researcher who understands direct shipping and three-tier, and speaks intelligently about Granholm, the Supreme Court case that is the fulcrum of the current controversy. She also seems to be genuinely concerned about underage drinking.
If I sound bitter about this, it's because I am. The reform of three-tier is a hugely complex subject that will require give and take from both sides, and I'm tired of being one of the few people who has the perspective to understand this. This study may or may not be perfect, but it's probably going to influence what happens. So let's work from there, instead of the usual pretentious righteousness and snark that passes for intelligent comment.