SPICe FAQs: young people, alcohol and the law

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At what age is it legal to buy alcohol? To drink it? Is it the same age at home as in a pub? What about buying non-alcoholic beer or liqueur chocolates? These are just some of the questions SPICe has been asked about young people, alcohol and the law.

The legal framework: devolved or reserved?

Alcohol has long been an age-restricted product in Scotland, and the law relating to young people and alcohol is complicated. A few aspects, like the broadcasting of adverts for alcohol, are controlled by the UK Parliament. However, licensing law itself is devolved: the Scottish Government regulates the powers of licensing boards to issue licences to premises for the sale of alcohol.

The main piece of legislation that controls the sale of alcohol is the Licensing (Scotland) Act 2005 (“the Act”). One of the Act’s five objectives, which underpin the whole licensing regime, is protecting children and young people from harm. “Young people” are defined as people aged 16 and 17, and this blog focuses mainly on this age group.

What role do local authorities play in alcohol licensing?

Licensing boards have wide discretion to determine appropriate licensing arrangements in their local area. They are legally independent from local authorities, but are administered and supported by them.

You can find information, including your licensing board’s statement of licensing policy, on your local authority’s website.

At what age is it legal to buy alcohol?

It is an offence for someone under 18 to buy or attempt to buy alcohol either for themselves or another person. There is an exception for “test purchasing” by a young person on behalf of the police.

The 2005 Act says alcohol “means spirits, wine, beer, cider or any other fermented, distilled or spirituous liquor”. It does not put an age restriction on the purchase of perfume, medicines containing alcohol, or “alcohol which is of a strength of 0.5% or less at the time of its sale”.

This means that there is nothing in the Act to stop a young person buying very low/no alcohol beer. However, local licensing boards or shops may impose their own policies and decide to treat these drinks in the same way as alcoholic ones. For example, a supermarket might decide to shelve non-alcoholic drinks in the beer, wines and spirits aisle, therefore restricting access to the times of the day in which the store has a licence to sell alcohol.

Young people aged 16 and 17, but not children under 16, can buy liqueur confectionery as defined in the Act.

At what age is it legal to drink alcohol?

It is an offence for under 18s to consume alcohol on licensed premises. There is an exception so that 16 and 17-year olds can drink beer, wine, cider or perry bought by an adult with a meal. This is subject to the manager’s discretion.

There is no licensing restriction on the age that a young person can consume alcohol at home. However, an adult could be prosecuted on grounds of child cruelty for allowing a young child in their care to consume alcohol. The Scottish Government’s Alcohol Framework 2018 cites growing scientific evidence on the effects of alcohol on young people’s health, and the developing adolescent brain in particular.

Can an adult buy alcohol for someone under 18?

Apart from the exception above for a 16 or 17-year old being bought beer etc with a meal, it is an offence for an adult to buy or attempt to buy alcohol on behalf of, or for, someone aged under 18 on licensed premises. This would include a young person giving an adult money to buy alcohol for them from an off-licence, or an adult buying them a drink in a pub.

Since 2017 it has also been an offence to supply a young person with alcohol in a public place.

It is not an offence to give or make available alcohol to a child or young person for consumption other than in a public place (for example at a house party) or for the purposes of religious worship.

Why are young people sometimes allowed in some parts of a pub, but not in others – or only until a certain time, eg 9 or 10 pm?

The 2005 Act doesn’t make this kind of detailed provision. It is likely that where young people can only be served in the lounge (but not at the bar) of a pub, this is because of a condition attached to the premises licence by the licensing board. Alternatively, it may be the venue’s own policy.

Similarly, there may be a requirement that children and young people must leave licensed premises at a particular time. This could mean that even a 17-year-old at a family function in a pub or restaurant might have to leave early.

What is the law on proof of age?

In 2011 a mandatory age verification policy was introduced. This means that staff in licensed premises must check the ID of anyone who looks under 25 before serving them in order to prove that they are over 18. The only acceptable forms of ID are:

  • a passport
  • a European Union photocard driving licence (or UK driving licence after 31 January 2020)
  • an MoD Form 90 (Defence Identity Card)
  • photographic ID bearing the PASS hologram, for example, a Young Scot card
  • a national identity card issued by a European Union member state, Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein or Switzerland
  • a biometric immigration document.

How is policy developing in this area and what do young people themselves think?

As far as young people and alcohol consumption are concerned, the general trend is a downward one. Until the most recent Scottish Schools Adolescent Lifestyle and Substance Use Survey (SALSUS): alcohol report, levels of drinking among younger teenagers were noted to have been declining steadily. It has also been reported that one in five students say they do not drink alcohol at all. Starting this Spring, the Scottish Government intends to consult on actions proposed in its Alcohol Framework 2018: Preventing Harm. These include restrictions on marketing to young people and adding health information to product labels. It is committed to putting “the voices of young people at the heart of developing preventative measures on alcohol”.

Current Scottish Youth Parliament policy states that “in order to promote positive relationships between young people and alcohol, young people between the ages of 16 and 18 should be able to purchase and consume alcoholic beverages at specific times and locations”. It also calls for mandatory nutritional and calorific labelling on alcoholic drinks, and improved support for alcohol addiction.


Jennifer Bruce, Enquiries Officer, SPICe, and Lily Shaw, Work Experience Pupil

Blog Image: pologi via Pixabay [Licensed under CC BY CCO]