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Tennessee ABC Sales to Minor Stings Spooks Industry and Leads to Carding Old Folks

Aug 9, 2015

We have heard from numerous folks about how ridiculous it is to card old folks for alcohol.  We blogged about the pitfalls of universal carding.

Tennessee law requires universal carding for beer sales from grocery and convenience and at liquor stores.  Details are here.

Although Tennessee law does not require restaurants, bars and clubs to card everyone, the fear of damaging suspensions of liquor and beer permits has provoked large numbers of businesses to adopt universal carding.  Fans of universal carding say that the policy is a hard and fast rule that takes guessing out of the hands of servers.  No more reckoning about how old a person is.

Blue Oyster Cult's classic is appropriate:

Don't fear the Reaper
Baby take my hand
Don't fear the Reaper

Tennessee restaurants, bars and clubs are under considerable pressure from the Alcoholic Beverage Commission.  ABC minor stings have hit restaurants and bars hard, particularly in Memphis and Nashville.

The pressure is intense.  Under old ABC policy, failing a minor sting lead to a fine, as long as the establishment demonstrated that it was trying to card.  New ABC policy means a 10-14 suspension for a second sale and 30-45 days for a third.  A fourth sale to minor in three years may lead to revocation.

Making matters worse is a new state law that requires beer boards to impose a suspension at least as long as the ABC.  The new law requires the ABC to notify the beer board of any suspension for sale to minor by certified letter.  The law also requires beer boards to notify the ABC of suspensions and requires the ABC to suspend the liquor license at least as long as the beer board.

Pouring salt in the wound is the fact that the ABC suspension and the beer board suspension generally are imposed at different times.

We know of many well-known respectable businesses in Memphis and Nashville that are facing the prospect of lengthy suspensions.  Managers and staff are under huge amounts of pressure to avoid a fourth sale to minor, which can lead to revocation.

For older customers in particular, the result of the stepped up ABC enforcement makes no sense.  Why card 55 year olds?  Try purchasing alcohol with a foreign ID, like Ireland or Israel.  Even in Nashville honky tonks and Beale Street blues clubs, bars often will not take the chance of serving someone with a foreign ID.

The end result of the new policy is that Tennessee is less friendly to tourists.  In our humble opinion, not a good trend for a state that derives a lot of revenue from visitors.


Jim Leonard followed our post on universal carding and has some good comments below.  We tend to agree that universal carding is publicly popular, but really takes the focus off identifying and refusing service to under age patrons.

Mr. Leonard comments:

I am writing in response to Will Cheek's post on August 9th about the extensive carding policies used by nearly every liquor-by-the-drink (LBD) in the State of Tennessee. My thanks to Will for allowing me to share my thoughts on his blog.

Let me first clarify that laws for retail alcohol sales have been relaxed slightly. C-stores (grocery and convenience stores) and liquor stores are supposed to card everyone who reasonably looks to be under 50 years old. The actual laws (2007 for c-stores, 2014 for liquor stores) still say 'universal carding' but the fines have been removed in cases where the patrons are 50+ so effectively that lifts the 'universal' carding requirement. 

There are many reasons why LBDs should not enforce a universal carding policy. First, this policy is an extraordinary reaction to a problem that doesn't really exist. It is true that there are people under 21 who want alcohol and it is best for everyone if they don't get it. That said, is there any evidence that underage drinking has become such a crisis in the State of Tennessee that we must adhere to the most unreasonable policies in the country? There are 49 other states and well over 149 other countries that do not resort to universal carding policies. The government, specifically the Alcoholic Beverage Commission is imposing a solution that in no way aligns to the magnitude of the problem.

Second, universal carding at LBDs does not work. Many establishments here in Chattanooga have employed universal carding since the retail law changed for liquor stores on July 1, 2014. ABC agents routinely conduct underage stings and they always catch a server who fails to card or fails to properly read an ID. ABC's own documentation has made my case for me, even when you employ universal carding underage people will occasionally get served.

Third, universal carding weakens the quality of carding when it matters. Servers are constantly toggling between real carding (the patron who looks to be under 30) and ridiculous carding (friends, family, and people who are clearly over 30). It's only a matter of time before a server looks at an underage ID without paying attention because half the time you are just glancing at the ID to satisfy ABC. This happened recently at Clyde's in Chattanooga. 

It would be more effective to tell servers, "only card when it matters and take every one of them seriously." I pose this question to anyone who favors universal carding - how does carding patrons over 30 make you better at catching patrons under 21? 

Fourth, As Will alluded to on August 9th, universal carding is bad for tourism. It's a big industry for our state and draws millions of visitors each year. We don't come off as very good hosts when we demonstrate that Tennessee has done away with common sense. In addition to looking silly we have many situations where servers and managers flat out lie to tourists and tell them 'It's a state law'. I for one don't think lying to tourists is a good way to represent Tennessee. Eventually we will lose some major convention business or even business relocation opportunities due to this policy.

Fifth, we are setting a very troubling precedent about the role of government. Universal carding says that you (the server) are not entitled to use your own knowledge or common sense. You are not allowed to simply know that your mother is older than you. You must see her state-issued ID. You are not allowed to safely reason that the man with the grey beard is at least a day passed his 21st birthday. You must ask to see his state-issued ID. ABC is effectively telling all of us that we are not allowed to think and we must rely on the state. The government can't get much bigger and more intrusive than forcing you to abandon your own judgment.

The next time you see a 23-year-old server tell a 55-year-old man that she must see his ID, just remember that somewhere just down the street a 17-year-old is drinking the beer that his older brother bought him. This policy will ban common sense but it will not stop underage drinking.

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