What You Can DoCommunity Preventing Youth From Obtaining Alcohol

Do you know how easily youth in your community can obtain alcohol and what communities can do to prevent young people’s access to alcohol?

Learn how easily youth in your community can obtain alcohol. Many community members may wonder how youth get their hands on alcohol when there are policies in place to restrict such access. The truth is that youth get alcohol from a variety of sources: being given it by friends and family members, by shoplifting it, by having other adults purchase it for them, and, despite a minimum legal drinking age of 21, by buying it directly from retail outlets such as convenience stores, grocery stores, service stations, and mini-marts.

To assess how easily youth in your community obtain alcohol, the first step is to build a database of information on alcohol availability and community problems from a variety of sources (see below). By doing so, you can demonstrate the link between alcohol availability and the resulting problems in your community. The following are things to consider as you plan your data collection:

  • Collect data from your community’s Police, city planning, and Parks & Recreation departments and the State Alcohol Beverage Control (ABC) to establish the extent of alcohol-related problems and incidents (such as car crashes involving youth and drunk driving or numbers of youth cited for alcohol possession and/or consumption in community parks).
  • Look for published and unpublished reports by local, state, and federal agencies as well as newspaper coverage of alcohol-related problems in retail settings.
  • Talk with alcohol outlet patrons, servers, and members of the general public about their experiences with youth who tried to access alcohol through them.
  • Observe events or activities in or near alcohol outlets to determine the extent that youth are subjected to alcohol displays and advertising.
  • Review literature on alcohol availability and its relationship to public health and safety.
  • Communicate with agencies, organizations, and individuals from other communities who have been active in addressing alcohol-related problems in retail settings to learn the strategies they used to limit youth alcohol access. Talking with them can save valuable time. The very process of collecting this information can help focus energy in your own community.
  • Use the technical assistance of individuals and agencies with special expertise; often, their expertise is available at little or no cost. Consult some or all of the following:
    • State ABC's
    • The state substance abuse agency
    • Local police and planning departments
    • Foundations or publicly funded programs such as legal aid foundations or health planning foundations
    • Federal agencies such as the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA)

Using these resources should give you a clear picture of the extent of youth access to alcohol and the related problems associated with it in your community.

Deter third-party sales.
Surveys suggest that many minors get alcohol from adults of legal age who purchase it for them . Such "third-party sales" are illegal in most states, and adults who buy alcohol for underage persons can be warned, cited, or arrested by the police. Merchants, as members of the community, can also take an active role in deterring third-party sales by informing their customers about the criminal and civil liabilities for providing alcohol to individuals under the age of 21.

To deter third-party sales in your community, consider working with local law enforcement and youth organizations to implement shoulder-tap operations in which an undercover operative approaches an adult outside a store and asks the adult to buy him or her alcohol. If the adult agrees and does so, the adult is cited for furnishing alcohol to someone underage. Measures such as this have been effective at deterring third-party sales in many communities, especially when such actions are highlighted through the media.

Increase support for consistent enforcement of existing laws against underage drinking in your community
. Community members can play an active role in urging law enforcement and merchants to enforce laws prohibiting alcohol sales to underage youth. This reduces the likelihood that merchants will sell alcohol to minors, who will in turn be less likely to try to buy it. The following are existing laws that may need enforcement in your community:

Make merchant education a priority in the community
. Business owners who sell alcohol may be unaware of the existing policies around alcohol and youth. Community members can lead an effort to educate merchants about these policies in the community through informative programs that cover the following elements:

  • Information about laws and penalities;
  • Information indicating the importance of avoiding sales to minors in protecting the health and well-being of everyone in the community;
  • Emphasis on proper management techniques and policies to encourage compliance with the law;
  • Information about how to recognize false IDs; and
  • Tips on how to refuse a sale of alcohol safely and comfortably.

Also known as Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) training, these programs inform participants about state and local ordinances concerning alcohol sales to minors and about penalties for breaking these laws.

Consider having a community group visit merchants and talk to them about the importance of avoiding the sale of alcohol to minors. Encourage merchants to use RBS programs and let them know that many states’ Alcohol Beverage Control boards provide free responsible beverage service and sales training to licensed establishments. Reward merchants who refuse to sell alcohol to minors with small prizes or by sending and publishing letters of commendation. Also, visit stores that sell alcohol and thank them for checking IDs and refusing sales to underage youth. Actions such as these let merchants know that as a community you are concerned about the sale of alcohol to minors and are taking actions to limit youth access to alcohol.

Focus on the community environment rather than the individual
. Underage binge drinking is a community problem. Youth generally do not produce, promote, distribute, or sell alcohol—adults and adult businesses do. In order to reduce the availability of alcohol to youth, the norms surrounding alcohol in the community must change. A shift in the emphasis to prevent underage drinking must be made from the individual youth to the community as a whole and what environmental conditions are in place that enables underage binge drinking to occur.

In an environmental prevention model, the focus on solving alcohol-related problems shifts from an individual focus to an environmental focus. The logic is that reducing alcohol availability will reduce alcohol consumption or modify the conditions under which it is consumed, which in turn will reduce alcohol-related problems such as violence, traffic injuries, and alcohol consumption by minors.

For more information on environmental prevention and what you as a community member can do to change the structures and community norms that facilitate underage and hazardous drinking, see the link below:

Hoover, S.A. 2005. Environmental Prevention. Community Prevention Institute (CPI) & Center for Applied Research Solutions (CARS). http://www.ca-cpi.org/tarp/EP-Final.pdf


Wagenaar AC, Toomey TL, Murray DM, et al. 1996. Sources of alcohol for underage drinkers. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 57:325-333.

Preventing Sales of Alcohol to Minors: What You Should Know About Merchant Education Programs. 1999.  Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation: Underage Drinking Enforcement Training Center.

Grover, P.L. (ed). Preventing Problems Related to Alcohol Availability: Environmental Approaches: Practitioners’ Guide. Prevention Enhancement Protocols System (PEPS). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

Parents Unite to Prevent Underage Drinking. 2002. Michigan Beer and Wine Wholesalers Association. Available at: http://www.michiganprincipals.org/parentresources/pdf/ParentsUniteBook.pdf#search=%22what%20agencies%20can%20do%20to%20prevent%20underage%20drinking%22. Accessed on [10/9/06]

Grossberg, P.M., Brown, D.D. & Fleming, M.F. 2004. Brief Physician Advice for High-Risk Drinking Among Young Adults. Annals of Family Medicine. 2(5): 474-480.

Straus, M. KCRA Channel 3 News: Learning Matters Segment. 12/8/2004.

Regulatory Strategies for Preventing Youth Access to Alcohol: Best Practices. 1999. Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

Preventing Problems Related to Alcohol Availability: Environmental Approaches. Prevention Enhancement Protocols System (PEPS). Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA).

4 Tiers: College Drinking—Changing the Culture. Available at: http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/StatsSummaries/4tier.aspx. Accessed on [10/3/06]

4 Tiers: College Drinking—Changing the Culture. Available at: http://www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov/StatsSummaries/4tier.aspx. Accessed on [10/3/06]

Hoover, S.A. Policy Strategies to Reduce Underage and Binge Drinking. Community Prevention Institute.