My Experience Participating in Alcohol Purchasing Tests

Guest Contributor: Haley Vance, NCAH Intern, Health Policy and Management Major in the B.S.P.H.program at UNC Chapel Hill Gillings School of Global Public Health

When I turned 21 in March, I was so excited to be able to purchase alcohol finally. I didn’t know at the time that my internship with NCAH would connect me with the Poe Center and that I would spend several days this summer participating in alcohol purchasing tests. I didn’t even know what a “purchasing test” was. 

A purchasing test is simple. A “customer” goes into a store that sells alcohol, places alcohol on the checkout counter, and sees if the cashier will ask for an ID or not during the transaction. If they do request an ID, the business passes the purchasing test. If they do not ask for an ID, then they fail. I learned that it is not legally required for an establishment that sells alcohol to ask a customer for identification to verify age. It is only illegal to sell alcohol to minors, therefore how a business avoids this is their own prerogative. Since I am 21 years old, even if an establishment failed to ID me, they could not get into legal trouble. 

Conducting purchasing tests is important for many reasons. Establishments that do not consistently ask for age verification are more likely to sell age-restricted products, such as alcohol and tobacco, to minors. The brains of young people are still developing which makes them more vulnerable to alcohol and nicotine. The collected data is also useful for policy formulation and implementation.

To participate in purchasing tests, I had to age test under 21 years old. Even though I am 21 and legally able to purchase age-restricted substances, including alcohol, I had to look younger than 21 to reinforce the necessity of alcohol establishments asking for my ID. This process involved surveying people coming in and out of a Walmart and asking them to guess my age. While the guesses ranged from 15 to 29, I age tested to be 18.3 years old, which gave me the green light to conduct purchasing tests.

When completing the tests, I worked primarily in the town of Fuquay-Varina. This area is extremely residential and in close proximity to many large Wake County high schools. This made it an important area to complete purchasing tests because of the large number of underage youth who may attempt to buy alcohol or other age-restricted products. Knowing this, I was also instructed to attempt to buy alcoholic beverages popular among young people such as Mike’s Hard Lemonade or Whiteclaw hard seltzers. 

The good news is that the pass rates have improved since the last time the Poe Center conducted alcohol purchasing tests. However, many businesses still failed. Some places said they would accept a picture of my driver’s license on my phone, while others only asked me what my birthday was but did not ask for a form of ID. Other places didn’t ask for anything at all. The Poe Center will provide merchant education materials to these businesses that failed the tests.

Although purchasing tests are time-consuming, it was a rewarding experience to be able to participate in on-the-ground public health work and directly contribute to bettering the public health of the Fuquay-Varina area.

Compliance checks like the ones in which Haley participated are also used to ensure that tobacco is not being sold to underage users. Compliance checks highlight retailer violation rates (RVR) or the percentage of retailers found to be selling tobacco to minors. If North Carolina’s RVR increases to more than 20%, the state stands to lose a significant portion of the Substance Abuse Prevention and Treatment Block Grant.

In 2023, NCAH will work to amend North Carolina’s youth access law to align it with federal law and secure additional funds for compliance checks and retailer education to help ensure North Carolina does not lose critical block grant funds and that no one under 21 is purchasing tobacco. Join us!

Learn more about Synar compliance:

Summary of the Synar Amendment

Synar Compliance: E-Cigarette and T21 Laws