HOULTON, Maine — Consumers who shop in convenience stores and other businesses that sell alcohol in Aroostook County are used to seeing signs throughout the establishment warning customers they don’t sell alcohol to anyone under 21 years of age.
But according to information gathered by the Aroostook County Sheriff’s Department, the stated facts are sometimes fiction.
Last month, the sheriff’s department oversaw an operation that had minors attempt to buy alcohol at 43 businesses stretching from Macwahoc to Fort Kent.
Twenty-three of the establishments sold alcohol to the minors and were issued summons for the violation, according to Sheriff Jim Madore.
Penalties for the violations can result in a fine, license suspension or both. Fines for stores start at between $550 and $1,500 for a first violation, depending on the number of offenses.
The compliance check was conducted thanks to funding from Community Voices and the Aroostook Substance Abuse Prevention Coalition, two County organizations that work to curb underage drinking. Claire Desrosiers, the coalition’s project director, said Monday she was not too surprised by the results.
“Since 2003, compliance checks have only been conducted sporadically,” Desrosiers explained. “And the businesses targeted were chosen at random. So that means that some businesses have gone for years without having undergone a compliance check. The one that was just conducted by the sheriff’s department was very comprehensive, and I think that it has brought to light issues that need to be worked on.”
Compliance checks used to be carried out by state liquor enforcement officers, but the agency was abolished in 2003.
Madore said that the fact that more than 50 percent of the businesses targeted failed shows the need for “more education and more enforcement efforts throughout The County.”
He also credited Community Voices and the ASAP Coalition with providing the funding for the compliance checks.
Desrosiers said she believes more education and training are critical to reducing the problem of alcohol getting into the hands of young people.
“We need to offer more training, and compliance checks need to be done at a minimum of every four months,” she said. “Research shows that these checks lead to significant reductions in sales of alcohol to minors.”
In 2010, Community Voices and the ASAP Coalition began providing funding to police departments for compliance checks. Thus far, police in Ashland, Houlton, Caribou and Presque Isle have received funding to carry out such investigations.
During a compliance check in Caribou last summer, the police department selected 12 local businesses where alcohol is served.
Fifty percent of the businesses failed the test and sold the minor alcohol, according to Caribou Chief Mike Gahagan.
Gahagan said at the time that he was stunned by the results, especially since the department offers free responsible beverage training to businesses in the city.
The Presque Isle Police Department also offers the training, according to Desrosiers.
Desrosiers said a number of factors have contributed to stores failing compliance checks.
“In some cases, there is a cultural ambivalence out there about alcohol,” she explained. “People go with their own opinions. If they see someone who they think looks old enough, they just sell them the alcohol without checking for identification. Or we have heard from people who say that they believe that people who are 18 years old are old enough to drink. Other times, cashiers have said that the store has gotten so busy and they were so harried that they forgot to ask for identification.”
Michelle Plourde Chasse, who represents Community Voices, called the results of the compliance check “an eye opener.”
She also felt that more education and retailer training were essential to prevent the results from repeating themselves in the future.
Desrosiers said she feels the increase in compliance checks since last year is working. She pointed to the compliance check done by the Caribou Police Department last year.
“Some of the businesses that were targeted by police in Caribou last year also were checked by the sheriff’s department last month,” Desrosiers said Monday. “This time, they passed.”