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Underage liquor agents seen by store owners as entrapment

A liquor store sign in New Westminster, B.C.

Richard Lam/Canadian Press

A customer walks into a liquor store, makes a purchase and leaves. Not long after that, the outlet is busted because the customer was a minor acting as an agent for the B.C. government.

This scenario has been playing out in the province for the past two years as part of the Minors as Agents Program, launched in 2010, as a means of ensuring liquor is not sold to underaged customers. Agents, aged 17 and 18, are trained for the effort. The drinking age in B.C. is 19.

But others see the program – touted by the government as one of a kind in Canada – as a means of entrapment.

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"I think it's a bit of overkill," said John Teti, who owns four private liquor stores in the Vancouver area.

No proprietor, said Mr. Teti, is looking to sell to minors. Proprietors are supposed to ask for ID. He said liquor inspectors have told his stores that they passed the test by rejecting the teenaged agents.

The exasperation with the program comes as the government announced last week that it was tightening measures against those who supply youth with alcohol. Steps include allowing police and liquor inspectors to issue $575 tickets for such action as opposed to the current tactic of handing out court appearance notices for violations.

According to the province, the teen agents went into more than 440 stores between May 2011 and the end of March – the time-frame for which data is available. Fifty eight of the stores sold the liquor to kids, an action that generated a total penalty of $7,500.

The program was launched two years ago when the government amended the Liquor Control and Licensing Act to ensure compliance over preventing underage drinking. The government says that, for the first time, the measures include servers at restaurants or bars who fail to ensure their customers are adults by checking for appropriate identification.

According to a 2011 report on the program, the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch "proceeded with caution" due to concern about the safety of the agents, selected through police and staff contacts as well as schools with law-enforcement programs. Parents had to sign off on their participation.

"The agents also received training in making and documenting observations, and were specifically instructed not to change their normal appearance or attire, to respond truthfully to any staff inquiries, and not to provide false identification," according to the report.

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"Before an inspection, liquor inspectors assess the store for risk. Afterward, the agent enters under close observation from two liquor inspectors who always work with them. The minor does not, in any manner, attempt to convince a clerk to make the sale," the report says.

Once outside the establishment, the agent turns over the liquor to the adult and fills out a report. If liquor has been purchased, the retailer is issued a notice. The agents are paid for their efforts, but the report does not offer salary details.

Mr. Teti said a better idea would be to shift the onus to youth who purchase alcohol, suggesting there should be an emphasis on collectable fines for youth. "They are the ones who initiate the violation," he said.

Ian Tostensen, president of the B.C. Restaurant and Foodservices Association, said some of his members have been stung by the young agents. "This is entrapment," he said. "You dress them up and go, `Ah ha. I've got you.' "

While Mr. Tostensen said he supports the province's overall goals on keeping liquor away from minors, he has an issue with this initiative.

Energy Minister Rich Coleman, who presides over the Liquor Control and Licensing Branch, was unavailable for comment on the program.

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