Why do 30 year-olds keep getting ID’d in Britain?

It’s not because of our youthful looks.

Many places in the UK operate a “Challenge 25” policy to ensure that under-18s aren’t buying alcohol and other restricted goods, but it’s a policy that frequently comes under fire for its indiscriminate application and high rate of false positives. Many feel that the policy removes autonomy from cashiers and adds stress and inconvenience to perfectly legal attempts to just damn well go shopping.

For my US readers, I know that this is normal practice where you live — but here it’s seen as a massive imposition. It has started happening a lot more frequently, and we’re just not used to it.

It’s all come about because we Brits can’t hold our drink — so everyone’s being punished for it. And yet, there are some very good reasons why we increased scrutiny on sales of alcohol and other restricted goods. It’s part of a wider public health strategy focussed on curbing harmful habits — of which we have many.

I was inspired to write on this subject by a golden bit of local reporting on happenings in the posh part of town. Twenty years ago, the news from Manchester was all about guns and gangs; thankfully all we have to report on these days is middle-class pensioners getting angry in the supermarket queue.

Bravo to this gentleman for trying to get a freebie off Aldi, that’s pretty bold. I might take my dad shopping and see if I get suspected of being an underage drinker. Talking of the cashier’s judgement, I’m pretty sure they know that the teenage tipple of choice is not rhubarb gin. Alas, the threat of a fine and closure order overrules common sense in many cases. While I personally detest this policy (because I have a baby face) and think it’s draconian, there is a reason the government changed the rules. So what exactly is it about, and it is working?

Disco 2000

At the turn of the millennium, it was Party Time in the UK. Not just on New Year’s Eve 1999, but pretty much all the time. We were perpetually drunk, and the whole world knew it.

Britain was top of the league tables for all manner of social ills (well, we have to be the best at something), and a decision was taken by the government that they really needed to sort this out. To most of us, it seemed like nannying politicians taking away our fun, but the harsh truth was that they wanted us to stop dying early deaths from alcohol, smoking, and partying that little bit too hard.

In order to bring our rampant hedonism under control, a series of legislative changes were brought in over the new decade related to the sale of restricted goods like alcohol and tobacco.

Too Much, Too Young

Ok, there was some decent logic behind this restrictive approach, rather than mere pearl-clutching. Certain behaviours and outcomes are associated with teenage drinking, and they’re not great. The report OECD (2009), Doing Better for Children found that British teenagers topped the table for risky behaviours — defined as smoking, drunkenness and teenage births.

There are complex reasons behind each of these indicators, but in order to bring about quick change a simple solution was needed. Our PSHE education has not been great, and that would be an excellent place to start. The government has recently made this compulsory for all school pupils (but only from 2020), but that is a tactic in the long game.

Unfortunately, a blanket policy to restrict the availability of cigarettes and alcohol was the only viable option. We weren’t cutting down by ourselves, so the adults in charge had to bring about some discipline. And it wasn’t just the kids that were over-indulging. Around 20% of UK adults smoked in 2009, and drinking among older adults was increasing year-on-year.

A Bad Example?

One of the ways of looking at youth drinking is that if teenagers are introduced to alcohol in a family environment with responsible adults present, they won’t go completely off the rails and engage in harmful and antisocial drinking. The truth is a little more complicated, and opinion is divided between those who say introducing teenagers to alcohol early on fosters sensible drinking, and those who claim it sets them up for bad habits and irresponsible behaviour.

The government position is currently that children should not drink at all before the age of 15, and after that they should only drink occasionally and under the supervision of a parent or carer. Research by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation determined that parents and peers both have a strong influence on a young person’s attitudes toward alcohol, and their drinking behaviour. They also found that teenagers are more likely to engage in problem drinking if they drink with friends, away from adult supervision, and see drunken behaviour in their families.

Based on government advice, not drinking before 15 seems to allow the transition period from an alcohol-free childhood into a drinking adulthood to occur, but at an age where it’s clear that there is a boundary, and that drinking is not an all-day, everyday thing to do.

Age restricted products

Age restrictions are based on the perceived harms to minors should they get their little hands on the good stuff, and are governed by what issues the government feels are pertinent. Frequently the tabloid media will have an influence by promoting whatever moral panic they’re excited about this time, supported by raw emotion and not hard evidence.

However, teenagers are still children, and cannot be trusted to make the best decisions or to act responsibly at all times. So when restricting the sale of products we consider the physical, psychological and moral harm to the child, and the potential harm to others. You might not agree with all of these reasons, but them’s the rules.

The Law

An expensive mistake. Source

Retailers must not sell products to anyone who is below the minimum age. At present, the biggest fuss is over alcohol sales (although there are often tragicomic stories of people getting refused service for a butter knife or Pritt stick). It’s illegal to sell alcohol to anyone under 18, and it’s also illegal for someone to buy alcohol for somebody under 18. There are exceptions: children over 16 may be bought beer, wine or cider to accompany a meal in a restaurant; and it’s legal for anyone over the age of 5 to drink alcohol at home.

Challenge 25

Challenge 25 is a retailing strategy that encourages anyone who is over 18 but looks under 25 to carry acceptable ID (a card bearing the PASS hologram, a photographic driving license or a passport) if they wish to buy alcohol. Introduced as Challenge 21 in 2006, Challenge 25 rolled out in the off trade in 2009. [Retail of Alcohol Standards Group]

In simple terms, this means that while the minimum age for buying alcohol is still 18, if you look younger than 25, you’re gonna get ID’d. Retailers stick rigidly to this — they don’t want to get fined — but this is a piece of industry guidance, and it is not law. It’s a bit of an inconvenience for the consumer, who is required to prove that they’re not about to commit a crime — mainly because so many innocent people get caught out.


There are no legal consequences for not carrying ID, but it means that the entire purpose of one’s trip to the shops is thwarted. People who previously never needed to carry ID found that they were getting carded, even though they look well over 18 years old. There are people in their 30s and 40s being refused sale and it’s all gotten a bit out of hand.

Another aspect of Challenge 25 that causes an inordinate amount of frustration is that the cashier is left to judge not only the consumer’s age, but also whether or not the consumer is buying the product for a minor who may or may not be in their company. Apart from this being about as scientific as witchcraft or water divining, it also causes a major headache for those who take their children shopping with them, because cashiers, who have to stick to the policy which denies them the ability to think for themselves, immediately jump to the conclusion that the adult consumer might be buying it for them to consume.

This is a major pain in the arse, like what are we supposed to do — leave our kids in the car? But it’s also a contradiction in the law. It’s illegal to buy or attempt to buy alcohol on behalf of someone under 18, but it’s not illegal for a child aged five to 17 to drink alcohol at home or on other private premises.

It began with good intentions, but now it seems to have become an arse-covering measure, with such a wide margin of caution as to be ridiculous. There are hundreds of stories of ordinary, law-abiding citizens facing the indignity of having to show ID, or worse, getting refused their precious bottle of Montepulciano. It is a bit worrying though, that we could be sending a worse message to our children: that alcohol is a secret and forbidden pleasure, that should only be enjoyed when mum’s not looking. The chances of this are especially likely if a parent gets refused service with their child in the queue with them, as happened to this woman:

Morrisons does not contest Mrs Slater’s version of events. The assistant even agreed that she would have sold the wine to a mother who had younger children with her because “no one would buy wine for a 12-year-old”. However she still refused to scan the wine without seeing Mrs Slater’s daughter’s ID — which she did not have with her.

Really? They believe that no-one would buy wine for a 12 year-old, but perhaps they would for a 13 or 14 year-old? Where’s the cut-off?

Was it worth it?

In terms of reducing the number of underage drinkers, this change in legislation and policy worked — underage drinking levels have fallen consistently since 2003. There are even headlines now commenting on the puritanical culture among the younger generation with their booze, cigarettes and sex-free lifestyles.

Britain still has problems with alcohol — but we’re doing a lot better than we were. Compared to the 2009 OECD report, excessive drinking, drunkenness, smoking and teenage pregnancy rates are down, although the last two items would also have been affected by improved education, national campaigns and the smoking ban.

The bigger issue was one of responsible drinking generally — something that the British don’t have a good history of. It has been said that Britain differed from other European countries in its drinking patterns and practices, with the British only drinking on special occasions or weekends, but really going for it when they do. and our Continental neighbours drinking more overall, but generally with meals and not with the purpose of getting drunk.

The introduction of 24-hour licensing in the 2003 Act was meant to space out our drinking and avoid a binge at closing time, although it actually meant a relaxation of the hours for which licences could be granted, not a 24-hour booze-a-thon. The tabloids predicted the complete downfall of British society within a fortnight, but it didn’t happen (Brexit will sort that out).

Most pubs still close at 11pm like they always did, although nightclubs have extended their opening well into the small hours. While the purchase at the till can be a nightmare, actually picking alcohol up on the weekly shop is a lot easier now that supermarkets have extended licenses. Importantly, there is virtually no way that underage drinkers are going to get served in a pub or club these days.

The numbers certainly add up — initiatives like Challenge 25 do make a positive difference, no matter how much we hate them. But like so many other things in British law, we demonstrated that we couldn’t be trusted to behave ourselves — and that’s why we have these rules. Challenge 25 winds everyone up, and the way it’s applied to parents with children in tow could do more harm than good — and it makes retailers look silly — but it’s the price we’re paying for our overindulgence.