Tougher law urged on sale of alcohol

The penalties for selling tobacco to minors in Walpole are stringent and clearly defined.

That’s not the case for the sale of alcohol to minors, because penalties are doled out on a discretionary basis, according to members of a substance-abuse awareness group.

To take the guesswork out of how infractions should be punished, and to make it more difficult for anyone under 21 to purchase alcohol, members of the Walpole Coalition for Alcohol and Drug Awareness are gearing up to petition town officials to adopt a set of local regulations and bans, modeled after those addressing tobacco.

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Among the ideas proposed at a recent meeting of the coalition, a town-funded task force created to address substance abuse among minors, is requiring liquor license holders to post signs stating that alcohol sales to minors are prohibited, as well as requiring all bartenders to be at least 21. The minimum age for bartenders in the state is 18.

Coalition members say the issue is especially urgent because Walpole, like many other communities, has an entrenched culture of underage drinking.

Violations are handled by the Board of Selectmen, which uses its discretion to issue punishments to liquor licensees depending on the severity and frequency of the offense, said Robin Chapell, who is Walpole’s health director and chairwoman of the coalition subcommittee working on the proposal.

Penalties can range widely from warnings to license revocations. License holders may appeal penalties with the state’s Alcoholic Beverages Control Commission, which has the power to accept, amend, or overturn the board’s decision.

“Our selectmen are really good [about penalizing] all the ones that have sold to minors, but depending on the selectman . . . they can say, ‘This is your first time, we’ll give you a warning,’ Chapell said. “And with our tobacco regulations, [first-time violators] can’t sell for two days and they get a $200 fine.”

Adopting specific regulations would also benefit liquor license holders, who will know exactly what to expect if they ever have to come before selectmen to address a violation, Chapell said.

“If they fail to check IDs, or give alcohol to a minor, or oversell to a customer, just different things, they should be fined and they should know exactly what the fines are for first, second and third offenses,” she said, adding the coalition plans to solicit input from the license holders before presenting a proposal to town officials. “We’re not doing it without them. I think that’s very important. I don’t think they want to sell to minors. . . It’s a culture thing we’re trying to fight.”

To address underage drinking, the subcommittee also wants to ban the sale of caffeinated alcoholic beverages, and drive-through sales of alcohol, said Selectman Christopher G. Timson, a coalition member.

“This is an area that we want to focus on and potentially come up with some additional rules that would try and assist in the objective of keeping alcohol out of underage drinkers’ hands. That’s what it comes down to,” Timson said. “Once we’re satisfied with the draft, we’ll go to the next step of presenting it to the coalition as a whole and then the selectmen.”

Tim Joyce, a Walpole resident and member of the coalition, has seen the effects of substance abuse, including alcohol, among local teens. Sober for 18 years, Joyce is a frequent speaker at rehabilitation centers and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, where he often sees high school-aged kids.

The 47-year-old father of two said he, too, drank when he was a minor, often taking cases or kegs of beer into the woods and drinking with his buddies. Today’s generation, perhaps because punishment for underage drinking is more severe, resorts to stealthier methods, often involving hard liquor, Joyce said.

“These kids fill up a bottle of Gatorade, fill it with vodka and put a coloring in, like Mountain Dew or juice to match the Gatorade color, and they’re in plain sight drinking,” he said. “They just pound. They don’t drink for taste, they drink for effect. . . They don’t go out and drink beers like I did. They go straight for the vodka.”

He said tightening alcohol regulations at the local level is a “phenomenal idea,” but more needs to be done about the buyers. Joyce is working with the coalition to introduce activities programs for minors, not just to keep them occupied, but to raise their confidence.

“Self-esteem is the only thing that’s going to combat drug and alcohol abuse,” he said. “As far as legislation, we need to definitely hold these people’s feet to the fire as far as having stricter enforcement for serving minors.”

If Walpole adopts its own alcohol regulations, it could be the first town in the state to do so, said D.J. Wilson, director of tobacco control at the Massachusetts Municipal Association, a nonprofit that provides advocacy to communities. Having clear penalties could also give the town an advantage in the state appeals process.

“Cities and towns will be on stronger footing if they can say to the ABCC, ‘No, we passed this bylaw and we gave it to [license holders],’ ” Wilson said. “Some of this may get driven by Walpole, if they decide to do this.

“For tobacco, we can hand a retailer one document and that lists for them all the things they can do,” he said. “That doesn’t exist in most cities and towns for liquor. This is centralizing the process and holding retailers’ feet to the fire to this age-restricted product.”