Why should a 27-year-old have to carry their passport to the supermarket?

A blog post by Sarah Boyes

I was recently asked for ID at the till of a large London supermarket after a weekly shop that included a few bottles of wine. The cashier explained that she had just finished her training and had been sternly warned to ask for identification from anybody looking under 25, or else face a potential fine and criminal record. She added that the standards agency regularly send around underage shoppers to check cashiers are complying with ‘Think 25’ legislation, so was sorry but had to be very careful.

Since I decided to argue the point, her supervisor became involved. What was bizarre is it soon became apparent that both employees had no doubt I was over eighteen and old enough to buy alcohol. What was in dispute was that, since I looked like I might possibly be under 25 years old (in the context of people worried about facing a lifelong criminal record and a large fine), that I had to be asked to produce official documents – a passport or driver’s license – evidencing my date of birth, yet had none to hand. Moreover, once the challenge for ID has been issued the supermarket cannot make a sale unless the relevant documentation has been shown, even if the customer’s maturity later becomes clear.

After about five minutes of discussion, there were interjections from two people patiently waiting in the queue behind me – an older man who said I was obviously a grown up and a middle-aged woman who added that her daughter got ID’d all the time and she was twenty-seven. The supervisor eventually agreed to take responsibility and put my shopping through on his log-in, on the condition I bring proper identification with me the next time I visit the supermarket (which I refuse to do).

The incident illuminates the way that legislation around alcohol has ballooned into a set of burdensome demands and patronising expectations on all sides, going far beyond over-zealous bureaucratising. In particular, ‘Think 25’ intimidates cashiers into being agents of an ill-conceived and vacuous attempt to cut down on underage drinking by making them personally legally responsible for any errant sales. The policy rides roughshod over the discretionary element that has always been a part of selling booze, blocking its civilising influence with the thick brick wall of official diktat.

In particular, ‘Think 25’ reveals how the law governing the sale of alcohol has begun to cleave apart the highly subjective category of looking over 25 from an objective standard of being over 18. It is no longer even looking 18 – or 16, as it used to be – that is required for being sold a bottle or three. The basis of the law is no longer what age a person actually is within prudent doubt, but rather what invented ‘category’ of age they are taken to ‘look like’ on the most stringent, stretched and bullying demands of proof.

In short, a person must ‘look’ a whole seven years older than the legal age to buy booze if they expect to be sold it without incident. In this way, the law has incorporated the arbitrary and subjectively shaped category of ‘looking over 25’ – a long seven-year span from teenagehood to comfortable adulthood – into being a part of the law itself. This means that being seen to ‘look over 25’ by whoever happens to be there has effectively become a legal requirement for purchasing alcohol in shops.

The notion of ‘looking’ a certain age is clearly a nonsense. Cashiers, who are already wrongly isolated and penalised by the law, are put in the bizarre situation of knowing somebody is old enough to buy alcohol, yet being unable to sell them it because they don’t look a whole seven years older than that age. People who we acknowledge as a society are old enough to make their own decisions about drinking are being regularly harried and pestered because they may well look exactly their age, or else happen to be seen as younger than they are for whatever reason.

‘Think 25’ isolates both supermarket staff and shoppers from a common culture where both are also everyday people and members of a shared, civilised way of doing things. It represents a damaging, inflated application of legal fines to individuals who should not be penalised for accidentally selling a few misplaced beers. It reconceives people who rightly challenge these patronising measures as miscreants and trouble-makers.

‘Looking over 25’ is a spurious category, and has no place in alcohol policy or a society confident and civilised enough to stand up for everyday freedoms.

Read on: 28 ¾: How Constant Age Checks are Infantilising Adults, a Manifesto Club report by Dolan Cummings