PRC Resources

Alcohol Outlet Control

Local Policies, Enforcement, and Underage Drinking
Component Co-Directors:
Mallie J. Paschall, Ph.D.
& Joel W. Grube

Drinking by young people under the legal drinking age of 21 poses many risks, including the immediate risks of impaired driving crashes, violence, and risky sex as well as the long range problems of alcohol dependency and other chronic illnesses.  Laws and policies can be very important to preventing these problems by reducing the access young people have to alcohol.

Alcohol policies can include a number of formal laws and rules, enforcement of these laws, and more informal procedures designed to reduce underage drinking. These laws and procedures make it more difficult and more costly for young people to obtain alcohol and they make it more risky and costly for adults to provide alcohol to underage drinkers. These policies can also strengthen community norms against underage drinking and against providing alcohol to youth.

Local communities may be particularly important in setting up these policy interventions, which can be very important tools for reducing underage drinking and drinking problems.

 Communities in many states including California can use a variety of strategies to reduce the availability of alcohol to minors. These include reducing the number of alcohol sales outlets that can be licensed in a given area in order to reduce outlet density or to keep outlets away from places where young people congregate (such as near schools). They can also enhance enforcement of underage drinking laws and use particular kinds of enforcement designed to reduce underage drinking (such as police "party patrols" that safely disperse underage drinking parties and hold party hosts responsible for serving alcohol to minors or other violations that may occur). 

This study has collected information about the local alcohol policies and enforcement activities in a geographically diverse sample of 50 California cities. It includes telephone surveys of young people in these communities to find out what young people think about alcohol, whether and how much they drink, where they obtain alcohol, and what kinds of alcohol-related problems they have had.   The researchers are analyzing the relationship between these local policies and their enforcement and the beliefs, behaviors, and problems of the young people who live in the communities.

Key Findings:

Analysis of local ordinances and policies in the 50 California cities indicates that these efforts to reduce underage access to alcohol have improved over recent decades, but that there is much more that can be done, especially to strengthen the ordinances.

The importance of policies at the community level has also been demonstrated by the study. Results indicate that community drinking norms (as indicated by adult drinking), outlet density and local enforcement activities are related to level of drinking among youth.

Adult alcohol use, outlet density and enforcement appear to affect youth drinking indirectly through adolescents' perceptions and beliefs about the availability of alcohol and perceived acceptability of alcohol use. The importance of adolescents' perceptions indicates that alcohol may be more readily available to adolescents (especially from social sources) in communities where alcohol use is more normative and acceptable.

These findings suggest that adult drinking norms and consumption patterns at the community-level maybe important influences on underage drinking and should be targeted in interventions to reduce drinking and drinking problems among young people. These findings also suggest that media campaigns or social marketing may be an important component of prevention programs. In particular, increasing awareness and visibility of enforcement activities may be essential to obtain a deterrent effect.