PRC Resources

Underage Drinking

Is Commercial Alcohol Availability Related to Adolescent Alcohol Sources and Alcohol Use? 
Story of Discovery
Mallie J. Paschall, Ph.D. , Joel W. Grube, Ph.D. , Carol Black, M.A. and Christopher L. Ringwalt, Dr.P.H.

Background: The Underage Drinking Problem

Underage drinking continues to be a serious problem in the United States and in Oregon. A 2004 nationwide survey found that 50% of 18 to 20-year-olds reported consuming alcohol in the past month and 37% reported at least one instance of heavy drinking during that time. Even younger students also report drinking: 17% of 8th graders and 33% of 10th graders in the 2005 Monitoring the Future Survey reported drinking in the past month. The annual social and economic cost of underage drinking was conservatively estimated to be nearly $62 billion in 2001.

Young people obtain alcohol illegally from a number of sources, including both social sources, such as friends and at parties, and commercial sources, that is, buying it at a store.

Recently, in Oregon and around the country, communities have worked to make it harder for young people to purchase alcohol. Even given the attention paid to this issue, research indicates that 30-70% of alcohol outlets may sell to underage buyers. A recent survey of 11th graders in Oregon found that 30% of drinkers obtained alcohol from a commercial source such as a grocery, convenience or drug store in the past month.


The Current Study

The current study was designed to determine how much effect the availability of alcohol from stores has on underage drinking. The study includes data from the Oregon Healthy Teens survey of 11th graders in 43 Oregon school districts. There was an overall response rate of 79.5%, with a final sample size of 3,332 completed surveys. Students were asked about how often and how much they drank and where they obtained the alcohol. Whether they reported drinking or not, students were also asked how easy they thought it would be to obtain alcohol.

In order to measure the effects of commercial availability on student drinking, researchers also conducted alcohol purchase surveys in all 43 school districts. Trained decoy buyers (who were all 21 but were judged to look between 18 and 19) entered up to 20 stores in each school district and attempted to purchase a six-pack of beer without any identification. The percentage of stores willing to sell to the decoy was then calculated. The school districts were divided into three categories: Those where the decoy buyer was able to purchase in 17% or fewer of the stores were classified as having a low sales rate. Thirteen districts were in this category. A medium rate was 20-38% successful purchases (15 districts) and a high sales rate was 40-100% (15 districts).


Study Results

The students in the survey reported obtaining alcohol from friends or family or at parties more frequently than they reported buying it at stores in the past 30 days (40.6% as compared to 10.7%). Friends over 21 and parties were the most frequently reported social sources (reported as a source by over half of students who had drunk in the past 30 days). Friends under 21 were also reported frequently as a source (by about 45% of drinkers).

Student's drinking levels were compared across the districts with low, medium and high illegal sales rates. The results found no significant differences in the level of alcohol use or heavy drinking for students related to whether alcohol was frequently sold to minors. That is, whether many stores in their area were willing to sell to minors did not seem to relate directly to whether students were likely to drink or to drink heavily. It did appear, however, that in those districts where alcohol was easier for underage buyers to purchase, more students obtained alcohol from social sources and more students said that alcohol was easy to obtain. In addition, when the analysis controlled for gender and ethnicity, a higher alcohol sales rate was positively associated with use of commercial alcohol sources and perceived ease of obtaining alcohol, which in turn were associated with drinking behaviors.   This suggests that commercial availability may have indirect effects on underage drinking via use of commercial sources and perceived ease of obtaining alcohol.



Even though reducing sales of alcohols to minors is an important component of a comprehensive strategy to reduce underage drinking, this study did not find a direct relationship between the willingness of stores to sell to minors and the likelihood that young people would drink or would drink heavily. Social sources of alcohol seem to be more important to these young people than direct purchase of alcohol. There were also some indirect effects on drinking in that in communities with higher illegal sales rates, young people were more likely to use commercial sources and to perceive that alcohol is easy to obtain.

It is important to note that the ease with which underage purchasers can obtain alcohol was found to be related to the likelihood that students obtained alcohol from social sources. Of course, two important social sources of alcohol are friends under 21 - who must have obtained the alcohol from somewhere, possibly a commercial source - and parties - which may have involved an underage purchase. Underage drinkers tend to drink in social situations. Not every young person who drinks actually goes into a store and purchases the alcohol. If ten friends drink together, only one needs to purchase. It is therefore not surprising that social sources are named more frequently than commercial sources. It is also not surprising that in areas where it is more difficult for underage drinkers to purchase alcohol, they are less likely to obtain alcohol from social sources.


The Take-Home Message

This study did not find a direct relationship between how easy it is for an underage drinker to purchase alcohol and how likely 11th graders are to drink or to drink heavily. Reducing the commercial availability of alcohol to underage purchasers may only have modest and indirect effects on underage drinking. More research is needed on how to reduce the availability of alcohol from social sources, although clearly the commercial availability of alcohol is related to the social availability.



Is Commercial Alcohol Availability Related to Adolescent Alcohol
Sources and Alcohol Use? Findings from a Multi-Level Study

Mallie J. Paschall, Ph.D., Joel W. Grube, Ph.D., Carol Black, M.A. and Christopher L. Ringwalt, Dr.P.H.
Journal of Adolescent Health 41 (2007) 168Ė174