Licensing law is the set of legal rules governing the sale of alcohol in a given jurisdiction. It usually defines who can sell alcohol, when, where and to whom. Generally the underlying purpose of licensing law is to act as a protection against any potential harm to public order or to public health. This is sometimes stated in the law.
Commercial / Noncommercial Alcohol
Licensing laws generally apply in all situations where alcohol is sold or distributed. Alcohol can be produced commercially or noncommercially.
Commercially-produced alcohol includes all the well known drinks and brands, many of which are available worldwide, as well as nationally or locally produced drinks.
Noncommercially-produced alcohol includes distilled spirits such as Russian samogon, Brazilian cacha, Tanzanian gongo, Zambian kachasu and Hungarian palinka. It also includes beer drinks such as banan or sorghum beer or Mexican pulque made from Algave juice. Home-produced wine is a common and traditional form of noncommercial alcohol.
Whilst many of these drinks are produced to high quality, serious health problems have also been associated with noncommercial beverages, as controlling the alcohol content and ensuring the purity of the product can be difficult.
License to Sell
Most countries that have restrictions on who can buy alcohol, will also have restrictions on who can do the selling.
In order to sell alcohol, you may have to obtain a permit or license.
The license may simply permit you to sell alcohol (as in parts of Africa) or it may be extremely detailed (as in most of Europe and North America). For example, in Scotland, there are different types of license depending on what type of sales you wish to do and from what environment. Thus, a restaurant license allows you to sell alcohol in a premises where people are sitting down to a meal and where alcohol accompanies a meal.
Find out what your country’s laws are regarding the sale of alcohol. Such information is provided by relevant
government bodies (such as the licensing authority, trade or commerce department or health ministry).
Where a license is needed, there are often restrictions on the times you can sell alcohol. It is illegal to sell alcohol outside the hours specified by laws.
The hours may differ depending on the type of license you have, e.g., whether you are selling alcohol to drink on or off the premises or whether you are serving food to go with the alcohol.
You can find out what the laws are regarding the hours you can sell alcohol from your manager or from a
relevant government office, sometimes called a Liquor Licensing Department.
Age & Alcohol
In most countries, it is forbidden to sell beverage alcohol to a person under a certain age. For example, this threshold is 16 years in Italy, 18 in Hungary and 21 in the United States.
Sometimes, the minimum age differs depending on whether you are drinking the alcohol on the premises or buying from a shop. In Sweden, it’s 18 in restaurants and 20 in shops; in Denmark, it’s 18 in bars and restaurants, and 16 in shops.
In some countries, the permitted age changes depending on the strength of the drink. In Finland, the legal age is 18 for buying drinks from shops with a maximum of 22% alcohol by volume and 20 for drinks stronger than that.
In other countries, the permitted age varies depending on whether or not the person is accompanied by an adult of legal drinking age, such as a parent or a spouse.
The legal age is set because alcohol can be very dangerous to the young. This is because they generally lack the experience of dealing with alcohol and their internal organs haven’t finished developing, so a small amount may have a much larger effect than it does on adults.
In England alone, around 21,700 people are admitted to hospital each year with alcohol poisoning, with a high proportion of them being young people.
If there are restrictions on age relating to the sale of alcohol, then you must check the age of the person you are serving. In most countries, staff are able to do this by asking to see some identification that is nationally recognized. However, in certain countries, such as Belgium and France, this can only be checked by officials. In France, only police and public order representatives can request identification. If you are in doubt about someone’s age, you must not serve them. How to handle refusing a customer is covered in more detail in Section 4: People Skills (see page 24).
Find out the minimum age when a person can legally buy alcohol in your country or local area. In some countries, there are also age restrictions for the person selling the alcohol.
Find out the minimum age that you must be to sell alcohol in your country or local area.
Other Duties / Offences
As someone who sells alcohol, you may have many responsibilities apart from checking the age of the person you are serving.
Serving alcohol to a person who is already intoxicated is an offence in most countries. Once drinkers have consumed alcohol to a level that they are showing signs of intoxication, their normal judgement is impaired. Therefore, it is up to the server, not the customers, to decide whether or not they should be served.
When is Someone Drunk?
It can be difficult to know when someone is drunk, and the amount of alcohol consumed will vary between different people. The law in Finland uses the following to define drunkenness - “Persons who are behaving disturbingly or are clearly intoxicated”. Another in Denmark states, “You cannot serve a person who is drunk if the person is a danger to himself or his surroundings”.
To understand how alcohol affects people, see Section 2: Alcohol (pages 8-14).
Find out what the laws are relating to selling alcohol to a drunken person in your country or local area from your manager or local licensing authority.
In order to comply with these laws, it may be necessary to refuse someone service. Even if it is not the law, it
is good practice to prevent drunkenness as it can result in problems.
Risks to Staff & Business
- Drunk customers are more difficult to deal with
- More mess to clear up (spillages, breakages, vomit, etc.)
- More disorder, issues may escalate into aggression and violence more quickly
- Staff more at risk for harm
- Increased costs to premises of replacing fixtures and fittings
- Increased staffing costs – need more staff to deal with disorder, likely to have a higher staff turnover
- Premises gets a reputation that in turn attracts more rowdy people and puts better behaved customers off
- Extra visits from the police, which puts license at risk
Risks to Customers
- Drunk customers are more at risk than sober individuals when returning home, whether driving, walking or using
public transport - as they are most vulnerable to attacks or having an accident
As drunkenness affects balance, judgement and sometimes the state of mind, there are many accidents and crimes where alcohol is a contributory factor. These include 50% of fire deaths in the UK and 70% of domestic violence in Uganda.
It is not only alcohol that is regulated by laws regarding its sale and consumption; drugs may also have legal obligations. In many countries, these are sometimes found legally or illegally in places that sell alcohol. Let us look at a few in detail:
Tobacco – some countries have a ban or laws in place that prevent smoking in certain places and many only allow sale of tobacco to persons over a certain age. In Ireland, it is illegal to smoke in an enclosed public area or workplace such as a bar or a restaurant.
Cannabis – the laws surrounding this drug can vary from it being legalized in some establishments (as in the Netherlands), to it being totally illegal and resulting in criminal offence (as in Finland).
Cocaine, Heroin, Ecstasy, etc. – Again, there will probably be laws surrounding these drugs’ use and sale. Many establishments selling alcohol also have legal responsibility to ensure that these drugs are not available or being used on the premises. Failure to comply may risk losing the license to operate. Make sure you are aware of the signs that someone is using drugs such as these and report any suspicions to your employer.
Find out what the laws are regarding the drugs above.
Find out what the laws are regarding the drugs above.
What Happens if You Break a Law?
In the countries where it is illegal to sell alcohol to individuals under a certain age, there is likely to be a fine and, in some cases (as in Belgium), a prison sentence associated with breaking this law. It can also result in the loss of the license to sell alcohol (as in Sweden).
Similarly, in countries where it is illegal to serve an intoxicated person, breaking this law could result in fines, warnings, loss of license or imprisonment.
Consequences of Selling to Underage Persons
|Austria||Fine of around €2,200|
|Czech Republic||Fines to seller and criminal consequences|
|Estonia||Fine & withdrawal of license and other sanctions depending on infringement (e.g.,, 1st or 2nd offence)|
|Finland||A written warning, a restriction to license limiting the service hours. Withdrawal of license for a certain time or permanently, fines, prison up to 2 years|
|Germany||Fines & loss of license|
|Ireland||On conviction, the courts must impose the following: 1st offence - a fine of €1270 and closure of premises for up to 7 days. 2nd and subsequent offences - €1905 fine plus closure of premises for 30 days. A license is lost when the establishment has 3 citations. Once license is lost, a premises can never again be licensed|
|Italy||Imprisonment up to 1 year|
|Switzerland||Fines and loss of license for a limited time|
|England & Wales||Fine of £1,000|
Depending on the country and the circumstances, these consequences can fall on the server, the license holder or both.
In order to prove that you are complying with the laws, it is good practice to keep records to show what
systems you have in place:
- Training and Training Records
It is good practice for employers to show that staff have been made aware of the laws through training and by asking staff to sign to show they have understood these laws, or to sit an exam to prove their understanding.
- Incident Diary
It is good practice to record any incidents that happen, such as arguments or fights, so that any problems can be identified to prevent them from occurring again. It also gives an accurate picture for company
communication and passing on to any authorities that may need details.
The current diary should be kept in a handy place where everyone knows where to find it. Old records should
be filed for possible use in any legal actions that may follow.
- Refusals Book
This is a book where you record when you have to refuse service because customers are underage, drunk, etc.
This record book is then signed by the manager and shows you are abiding by the laws. It also helps to build a
picture of any problem patterns.
- Age Policies
It is often seen as “not doing enough” to just ask those who look underage for identification as you may
miss some people. Where the legal age is 18, many countries make it good practice to check the ID of all
customers who look under 21 years of age, so there is at least a 3-year age “buffer”. Some countries use 5- to 10-year buffers as the safe policy when checking age. This ensures that underage individuals are not served in
error on account of them looking older than their age.
Summary / Action Points
- Find out what the law says about who can sell alcohol in your country or local area
- Find out what the legal selling hours are for your particular place of work
- Find out what the age restrictions are in your country with regard to alcohol sales
- Find out what the laws are with regard to selling alcohol to an intoxicated person
- Find out what the laws are regarding the sale and use of tobacco, cannabis and other drugs
- Find out what the punishment is if you break a licensing law
- Ask your colleagues or your employer about policies and systems you have in your work
environment to show that you are abiding by the laws
- Managers - look at your systems and discuss with staff any improvements that can be made to enhance your preventative measures