• Center for Problem oriented policing

Responses to the Problem of Underage Drinking

Your analysis of your local problem should give you a better understanding of the factors contributing to it. Once you have analyzed your local problem and established a baseline for measuring effectiveness, you should consider possible responses to address the problem.

The following response strategies provide a foundation of ideas for addressing your particular problem. These strategies are drawn from a variety of research studies and police reports. Several of these strategies may apply to your community's problem. It is critical that you tailor responses to local circumstances, and that you can justify each response based on reliable analysis. In most cases, an effective strategy will involve implementing several different responses. Law enforcement responses alone are seldom effective in reducing or solving the problem. Do not limit yourself to considering what police can do: carefully consider whether others in your community share responsibility for the problem and can help police better respond to it.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy

1. Reducing the community's overall alcohol consumption. Any efforts to reduce a community's overall drinking have the potential to reduce underage drinking as well. Changing the norms about alcohol's role in the community can affect young people as well as those legal to drink. Specific responses could include discouraging price discounts on alcohol, restricting the hours or days retailers can sell alcohol, or limiting the number of community alcohol outlets.
2. Creating community coalitions. Many groups have a vested interest in the problem of underage drinking. However, conflicting personal, political, and business interests can make cooperative community efforts difficult to implement and even harder to sustain.42 The most successful efforts to combat underage drinking have included a broad range of stakeholders who can lend their specific expertise to the issue, and whose involvement can help to reduce any resistance to the effort. Potential partners include the following:
  • State, local, and campus police agencies
  • County prosecutor's and city attorney's offices
  • State and local elected officials
  • Local high schools, colleges, and universities
  • Parent organizations such as the Parent-Teacher Association and Mothers Against Drunk Driving
  • Student organizations such as the student council, athletics associations, Students Against Drunk Driving, and Interfraternity Council
  • Community recreation programs and athletic programs
  • Community and neighborhood programs such as Crime Watch and Neighborhood Watch
  • Alcohol licensing bureaus and ABC boards
  • Local bars and restaurants, and alcohol wholesalers and distributors
  • Local retailers and distribution centers; and media advocacy groups
3. Using a multifaceted, comprehensive approach. A multifaceted, comprehensive approach is more effective than one that focuses on only one or two aspects of underage drinking. For example, responses targeting only the commercial availability of alcohol to minors could displace the problem to residential neighborhoods, in the form of house parties. A comprehensive approach should address the motivations for underage drinking, the specific harms associated with underage drinking (e.g., drunken driving), the commercial and social availability of alcohol, the use of fake IDs, and the community's norms regarding alcohol. It is vital to look broadly at the environment that supports the problem behavior.† Programs targeting the college environments in which drinking occurs have been shown to reduce the level of students' alcohol consumption, as well as the problems experienced by drinkers and those around them.43

† See DeJong and Langford (2002) for a useful table of strategies that illustrate the importance of approaching the problem from various levels and focusing on the environment that sustains the behavior.

4. Understanding your state's laws regarding underage drinking. All U.S. states have laws governing minors' purchase and possession of alcohol. However, the specifics of the laws vary widely, and their usefulness in constructing responses can be limited by unusual wording or loopholes. 44 When considering responses that alter penalties or apply new sections of law to the problem, it is vitally important to consult with your jurisdiction's prosecutor to ensure the law's interpretation supports your intentions.‡

‡ You can find a description of each state's statutes at www.nllea.org/reports/ABC EnforcementLegalResearch.pdf.

5. Avoiding overwhelming the court system. Stepping up enforcement efforts nearly always results in an increase in court cases. If the system is not prepared to handle the increase, and offenders are not quickly sanctioned, the response's effectiveness may be undermined. For this reason alone, it is often worthwhile to develop responses that do not rely on the application of criminal penalties. Some jurisdictions have anticipated this issue and have included court representatives in the project-planning phase, to get their cooperation in handling the increased number of cases,45 or have enlisted them as partners to create alternative sanctions for offenders, such as community service-based diversion programs. 46

Specific Responses to Underage Drinking

Responses That Target the Motivation to Drink

6. Implementing a "social norms" program. Some interventions use a harm-reduction approach. In other words, they attempt to reduce how much or how often young people drink, rather than try to prevent underage drinking altogether, which some see as unrealistic, particularly among college students.
Given that many youth drink because they think "everyone else is doing it," providing accurate information on the typical amount of alcohol consumed and the proportion of peers who drink heavily (both of which are lower than most young people estimate) may reduce overall consumption levels among college students. 47 Essential steps include identifying students' primary source of information (e.g., the campus newspaper), placing notices that provide accurate statistics regarding alcohol use, and providing students with incentives to process and retain the information. Social norms researchers recommend keeping the message simple, straightforward, and consistent, and stressing the norm of moderation. 48 Anticipate some opposition to an approach that could be perceived as condoning some level of underage drinking.†
college students

Many universities have developed a wide variety of visual aids to correct students' misperceptions of typical drinking behavior among their peers. Source: University of Arizona Social Norms Media Campaign, see http://www.socialnorm.org/

† While there is research to substantiate the effectiveness of social norms marketing programs, other studies cast doubt on their effectiveness. For example, Wechsler et al. (2003), compared student drinking patterns at colleges that employed social-norms marketing programs and those that did not. Over a three-year period, no decreases in various measures of alcohol use were evident at schools with social norms marketing programs. In fact, increases in monthly alcohol use and in total volume consumed were observed at some schools.

7. Raising underage drinkers' awareness of their behavior's impact on other people. Informing underage drinkers that their drinking adversely affects their peers, and that their peers are no longer willing to tolerate it, can encourage young people to reduce their alcohol use. 49 These campaigns should take care not to reinforce an institution's reputation as a "party school" or encourage the ostracism of nondrinkers. 50 They should direct those interested to further resources and information.

Posters and flyers raise awareness of the second-hand effects of drinking. Source: Hobart & William Smith College's Alcohol Education Project, see http://academic.hws.edu/alcohol/posters/posters


8. Providing treatment or feedback. Cognitive-behavioral approaches and skills-based training have proved effective strategies in reducing high-risk drinking among young people. 51 These interventions require drinkers to monitor their alcohol use and any alcohol-related problems. They also teach important skills such as drink refusal and drink pacing to reduce the harms associated with underage drinking. In addition, motivational techniques† that provide nonjudgmental feedback to young people based on their own assessment of their drinking patterns have had some success in reducing drinking and its negative consequences. 52

† See Walters (2000) for sample feedback forms.

Responses That Target Commercial Access to Alcohol

9. Improving the ability to detect fake IDs. Using fake IDs to obtain alcohol from retailers or at bars and restaurants is widespread, in part because of the relative ease in altering, forging, or counterfeiting these documents. In addition, underage drinkers often present merchants, bartenders, and door staff with out-of-state IDs with which they are not familiar, making it difficult to detect minor alterations. ID guides can help in detecting the more egregious falsifications.‡ Training programs are also available to help in identifying more subtle forms of falsification, such as picture replacement, date adjustments, computer-generated duplicates, and mismatches between the person's appearance and the ID photograph. 53

‡ Several companies publish reference books of each states ID cards. For example, see http://www.idcheckingguide.com/ 

    Many states have changed their driver's licenses and ID cards to make them more tamper-resistant. For example, some states use a profile photograph of minors to clearly indicate that they are under 21. Others boldly print "Under 21 Until…" on the face of ID cards. Holograms or indicators that can be seen only under an ultraviolet light can also deter counterfeiting. Using scanners to read barcodes and magnetic strips can also help in detecting altered ID cards. 54 While this response must be enacted at the state level, it can provide a powerful tool for reducing fake-ID use.
    When citing someone for using a fake ID, you should ask about the source of the document so that you can tailor your responses to unique problems or emerging trends. For example, one jurisdiction confiscated a number of fake IDs procured through the Internet. By copyrighting the state's driver's license, the jurisdiction could use copyright-violation laws to close down counterfeiting Internet sites. 55
    10. Implementing "Responsible Beverage Service and Sales Training" programs. The primary lines of defense against commercial access to alcohol by underage youth are the sales clerks, waiters and waitresses, and bartenders who directly interact with them. Business owners and managers should set clear policies for their employees regarding checking ID and denying service to underage customers. Without this support, changes in server or seller behavior are unlikely.

    Many states' ABC boards provide free responsible-beverage-service-and-sales training to licensed establishments. Some states require such training for licensing, and others provide specific incentives for businesses that participate voluntarily. These programs inform participants about state and local ordinances concerning alcohol sales to minors, and about penalties for breaking the law. Further, they help owners and managers to develop establishment-level policies and practices to help employees carry out their legal obligations. Essential elements of effective service and sales policies include: 56
    • Establishing 21 as the minimum age for everyone who serves or sells alcohol
    • Ensuring that staff know their legal responsibilities
    • Regarding underage sales
    • Ensuring that staff know the establishment's policies and the consequences for violating them
    • Requiring ID from all customers who appear to be under 30
    • Developing specific guidelines and providing training on valid forms of ID
    • Monitoring staff compliance and enforcing consequences for violations

    Good training programs offer skill-development exercises, such as: 57

    • How to identify a fake ID, how to confiscate it, and what to do with it once confiscated
    • How to determine whether an adult is buying alcohol for someone underage, and how to refuse service
    • How to resist pressure to serve or sell alcohol to an underage customer
    • How to refuse service without creating a tense situation

    Businesses should inform customers about their participation in such programs, both to encourage community support for responsible business practices and to deter underage youth from trying to buy alcohol or gain entry.

    11. Enforcing minimum-age purchase laws. The primary means to enforce minimum-age purchase laws is to conduct compliance checks of businesses that sell alcohol for use either on or off premises. Compliance checks use underage volunteers who try to gain entry and alcohol service at bars or restaurants, or buy alcohol at stores. The volunteer is directed to be truthful about his or her age, if asked, and to present legitimate ID. If the volunteer is able to buy alcohol, the server and manager are cited for violating the minimum-age purchase law. In some jurisdictions, if a clerk or bartender appropriately denies service to an underage volunteer, the alcohol board notifies the business owner and encourages the owner to congratulate and reward the employee for obeying the law.58
    There are a number of important considerations and decisions to be made when designing a compliance investigation:†
    • Selecting underage volunteers who clearly look underage, and whose diverse characteristics may help to avoid bias or other factors that may influence sales rates
    • Training volunteers on how to make a purchase: how to act, what to say, and how to respond to questions
    • Selecting location, time of day, and frequency of operations
    • Choosing the type and amount of alcohol to buy
    • Addressing a variety of operational issues, such as deploying officers, issuing citations, recording or observing transactions, keeping records, and working with the media

    † See Alcohol Epidemiology Program (2000) [Full text]and Willingham (n.d.)[Full text] for two excellent guides on designing compliance investigations.

    Given that the overall goal is to reduce alcohol sales to minors, and not to issue a high volume of citations, it is important to give retailers, bars, and restaurants notice that random and ongoing compliance checks will be conducted. 59 Such notice, and prior consultation with local prosecutors, can also help to prevent entrapment claims.

    Some jurisdictions supplement compliance investigations with "Cops-in-Shops" operations that station a police officer in an establishment, as either a customer or an employee, to apprehend underage people trying to buy alcohol. Establishments cooperating in these operations post a sign in the window notifying customers that a police officer may pose as an employee, and advising them of the penalties for underage purchases. While this enforcement strategy has not been rigorously evaluated, case studies suggest that "Cops-in-Shops" programs can effectively supplement compliance checks, although they should not substitute for them. 60 One of the main benefits of these operations is on-the-job training on identifying fake IDs and detecting typical physical and behavioral characteristics of minors—and of adults buying alcohol for them. 61

    12. Conducting undercover "shoulder tap" operations. One of the main ways that young people obtain alcohol from commercial sources is to ask strangers to buy it for them. In "shoulder tap" operations, 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, he or she is cited for furnishing alcohol to someone underage. As with all undercover operations, decisions about the characteristics of the volunteers used, the scripts delivered, the types of establishments and potential buyers targeted, the time of day, and other concerns are paramount to the effectiveness of the response. Very few of these operations have been evaluated, but case studies suggest that highly publicized operations that generate a large number of citations are likely to have a deterrent effect and reduce the amount of alcohol minors obtain through third parties. 62
    13. Checking ID at bars and nightclubs. In this response, either plainclothes or uniformed officers enter an "on-premise" establishment and check the IDs of everyone drinking alcohol. They cite those with no or fraudulent ID, and the establishment may face administrative consequences. These ID checks encourage doormen and bartenders to be diligent in their efforts to verify customer age, and they show customers that the police support the establishment's policies and procedures.
    14. Applying graduated sanctions to retailers that break the law. There are three types of penalties imposed in response to violations of minimum-age purchase laws: 63
    • Administrative: These penalties involve restrictions, suspensions, or revocations of business licenses if retailers do not follow state and local standards of conduct.
    • Criminal: These penalties apply to the person who sells alcohol to a minor. They may include fines, probation, or imprisonment, and they may be noted on a criminal record.
    • Civil: These penalties are commonly called "dramshop liability," and refer to lawsuits for monetary damages for any harm caused by minors served alcohol by retailers.
    Penalties are most effective when believed to be both swift and certain. The likelihood of sanctions is more important than the severity of sanctions in encouraging compliance. 64 Given the complexity and often excessive severity of criminal charges, most states have found that administrative penalties are the most effective. Further, administrative penalties hold the establishment's owner responsible and significantly affect profitability, which encourages owners to ensure that all employees follow the law. The threat of civil liability has been shown to increase the consistency with which ID is checked, and to be related to decreases in negative alcohol-related consequences. 65 One incentive for retailers to comply with the various provisions of responsible-beverage-service-and-sales programs is to shield them from dramshop liability if they can demonstrate that they followed all applicable policies and practices.

    Responses That Target Social Access to Alcohol

    keg registration form

    Many states use keg registration to link information about those who purchase a keg to the keg itself. Buyers are required to complete a form at the time of purchase. The keg is marked with a permanent sticker or tag. Source: Georgia Department of Revenue

    15. Training adults about "social host liability." Social host liability refers to the imposition of civil penalties against adults who provide alcohol to minors for injuries caused by those minors. Approximately 30 states have some form of social-host-liability law, 66 but education and awareness programs must be in place to make them effective. 67 At a minimum, education efforts should stress that it is unacceptable for adults to furnish minors with alcohol, and should increase awareness of relevant laws, penalties, and enforcement initiatives. This type of training has proved particularly effective with Greek organizations on college campuses, some of which have radically altered their practices regarding large house parties.
    16. Requiring keg registration. Police have noted that it is often difficult to identify the adult responsible for providing alcohol to minors at large house parties, particularly keg parties on college campuses. Keg registration links buyer information to the keg itself, through tags, stickers, or ID numbers stenciled on the keg. At the retail outlet, the buyer must provide ID and contact information, and may also be required to sign a statement indicating awareness that it is illegal to furnish alcohol to minors. When police seize a keg of beer at a party where underage drinking is occurring, the person responsible for furnishing the alcohol can be easily identified through the retailer. This response is relatively low-cost. However, a number of jurisdictions have noted that retailers can exploit voluntary keg registration by advertising their refusal to participate (e.g., "We don't use keg tracking"). 68 Thus, it may be sensible to make keg registration mandatory.

    Responses That Target Locations Where Drinking Occurs

    17. Developing house party guidelines, registration forms, and pre-party walk-through procedures. Offering guidance on how to host a safe party at which minors cannot access alcohol can reduce underage drinking and the number of complaints received from neighbors bothered by noise, traffic, and other party byproducts. A number of police departments and college student organizations have developed guidelines for safe parties. These guidelines offer pre-party preparation and hosting tips, such as the following: 69
    • Inform neighbors about the party and ask them to contact the host first if they have any concerns or problems, rather than automatically calling the police.
    • Take frequent walks around the outside of the house and property to assess noise levels.
    • Do not permit underage guests to drink.
    • Ensure that people who have been drinking do not drive.
    • If the police do show up, turn off the music, stop the party, and talk calmly with the officers.
    Other jurisdictions use voluntary party registration forms and pre-party site visits by police to offer prevention tips to parents or property owners. Guides have been developed to help high school students' parents in planning parties at their homes. Typical guidelines include the following: 70
    • Limit the number of people invited, and the number of people allowed on the property.
    • Have sufficient chaperones to monitor the property and the guests for any problems.
    • Be prepared to call an underage guest's parents if he or she appears to be under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
    • Set a beginning and ending time for the party.
    It is important to remind party hosts that pre-party police advice is not foolproof, and that controlling the party and access to alcohol is their responsibility.
    hotline poster

    Well-publicized hotlines can be a valuable source of information about party locations. Source: Texas Alcohol Beverage Commision http://www.tabc.state.tx.us/enforce/hotline.htm


    18. Setting up hotlines to gather information. Hotlines for students, teachers, or parents concerned about underage drinking can be a valuable information source. People use a hotline to report a party location either before or during the event. Patrol officers then drive by the location to identify any problems. Providing an easy-to-remember phone number, ensuring caller anonymity, and staffing the hotline with nonpolice personnel increase the likelihood people will call.
    19. Deploying party patrols. Teams of police officers dedicated to identifying and dispersing parties where underage drinking is occurring not only serve as a deterrent to such events, but also can reduce the number of youth who drive after drinking. Police identify party locations through hotline reports, complaints received from neighbors, keg registrations, or routine patrol.† Once police establish probable cause and secure the perimeter of the location, they enter it;‡ contact the host; identify those age 21 and over and those under 21 who have not been drinking, and release them; and process those under 21 who have been drinking. They also cite the adult(s) responsible for furnishing the alcohol. Arranging safe transportation for those who have been drinking is vitally important. There are a number of detailed implementation guides available.§

    † The San Diego Police Department uses its College Area Party Plan to identify locations that have been the subject of repeated violations and complaints. Once a property has been identified as a CAPP property, a zero tolerance policy is enacted for all future complaints: no warnings are given, and proactive arrests are made. The Silver Gate Group (2001).

    ‡ You should consult legal counsel if you are uncertain about police authority in your jurisdiction to enter house parties without a warrant.

    § See Morrison and Didone (2000) and Casady (2002), accessible at www.ci.lincoln.ne.us/city/police/pdf/nuparty.pdf.

    20. Imposing fines for each underage person drinking at a party. Large monetary penalties for providing alcohol to minors can be an effective deterrent to groups and organizations that regularly host parties where underage drinking occurs (e.g., fraternities and sororities). Issuing a summons to the responsible adult for each underage guest found drinking at a party can be financially devastating. One jurisdiction issued 70 summonses at one event, resulting in a fine of over $20,000 to the host. 71 The financial liability from large parties where alcohol distribution is not controlled has caused a number of national Greek organizations to require that their properties and social functions be alcohol-free. 72 When fine amounts are modest, party hosts may conclude that they are a small cost compared with the revenue they get from charging admission.
    21. Using landlord-tenant ordinances and nuisance abatement procedures. When police receive numerous complaints about parties from neighbors, and respond to a location multiple times and find underage drinking, they may have additional leverage through landlord-tenant ordinances and nuisance abatement procedures. 73 If the party host rents the property, the landlord can be brought in to help resolve the problem. Upon the first citation for providing alcohol to minors, the landlord is issued a warning. Subsequent citations lead to requirements for corrective action plans, and ultimately, eviction if the problem continues. Similarly, some jurisdictions have used nuisance abatement procedures to combat problems often associated with house parties, such as illegal alcohol sales, excessive noise, and property damage. 74 It is vitally important to document all contacts with tenants and owners to establish a record of noncompliance.
    22. Restricting alcohol use at popular outdoor venues and community events. Restricting drinking in public places can reduce excessive drinking and sales to minors. 75 One way to control the flow of alcohol at public venues is to issue conditional-use permits that set standards for how and when alcohol can be sold, served, or consumed. These permits can restrict drinking to certain "21 and over" areas, restrict the hours of sale, and limit advertising.
    23. Sponsoring alcohol-free events. High school and college students often complain that "there's nothing to do" in their communities, and often have few opportunities to socialize outside of school. This may increase drinking's appeal. Coalition- or school-sponsored alcohol-free events can increase the array of social alternatives for youth and can substitute for events and traditions centered on excessive drinking (e.g., after-prom parties, tailgating before athletic events, spring break). 76 The events schedule should be focused on the most problematic times of the day, days of the week, and locations. 77 For example, late-night weekend activities such as movies or karaoke can be planned for residence halls where underage drinking has been a persistent problem.
    24. Developing campus policies to deter underage drinking. Given that college campuses are popular settings for underage drinking, it is vital that school-specific strategies be enacted in jurisdictions that include colleges and universities. These could include clarifying campus alcohol policies, creating substance-free housing and dormitories, adjusting class and exam schedules to deter Thursday-night drinking, and using campus disciplinary procedures to emphasize the school's intolerance for alcohol violations. 78, †

    † See Fisher (1999) and National Advisory Council on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2002) for detailed response guides for college campuses.

    Responses That Focus on the Consequences of Underage Drinking

    25. Applying administrative sanctions rather than criminal penalties. Criminal penalties are meant to serve as a deterrent. However, severe criminal penalties for underage drinking-related offenses (e.g., possession, attempted purchase, use of fake ID) are seldom enforced and have not proved a big deterrent. 79 In part, the lack of widespread, consistent enforcement is due to the burden on prosecutor and court resources, and a reluctance to enforce stiff penalties for what is perceived as a minor offense. Criminal sanctions are often neither swift nor certain, which undermines their deterrent effect. In contrast, less severe penalties (e.g., fines, community service) are more likely to be enforced and may be a greater deterrent. 80 

    Suspension of a minor's driver's license in response to an alcohol violation—whether or not the offense involved a vehicle—is the penalty for breaking use/lose laws. For youths not yet licensed to drive, use/lose laws generally delay the issuance of a driver's license for a specified amount of time. These laws have been linked to a reduction in vehicle-related alcohol problems, 81 but raise constitutional concerns. 82 Use/lose laws have been extended to cover the use of a fake ID. Many states have recently increased the penalties for using a fake ID, and have publicized these changes to ensure that young people are aware of the consequences for doing so.† Keep in mind that extending driver's licensing sanctions to nondriving offenses almost certainly will increase offenses such as driving with a suspended or revoked license and eluding a police officer.

    † For example, Virginia's ABC board created a pamphlet, available at http://www.abc.state.va.us/Educatio n/fakeid/FakeID.pdf.

    26. Applying informal social control. While there have been no evaluations of informal social control's impact on underage drinking, we know that young people are often more powerfully influenced by teachers, coaches, mentors, peers, and parents than they are by the threat of formal sanctions. Enlisting the help of responsible adults who have relationships with young people not only can prevent expensive criminal justice sanctions that often take some time to be imposed, but also sends a powerful message about the community's intolerance for underage drinking. For example, when police cite high school or college athletes for underage drinking, notifying their coaches of the infractions can lead to creative consequences that hold the offenders accountable but do not saddle them with a criminal record. Similarly, parents and schools revoke privileges (e.g., driving, participating in social events) or impose disciplinary sanctions in response to citations for underage drinking. Military commanders may discipline underage soldiers who come into contact with police. Police may find opportunities to support these forms of informal social control.

    Responses With Limited Effectiveness

    27. Using school-based education, awareness, or values-clarification programs. Student orientation, alcohol awareness weeks, and curriculum infusion are typical interventions found on high school and college campuses. The assumption guiding these efforts is that people make wiser choices if they know the facts about alcohol. Although this may be true, information alone is usually insufficient to change behavior. 83 Evaluations of these stand-alone programs have found no effect on alcohol use or alcohol-related consequences. 84
    28. Launching consequence-focused information campaigns. Focusing solely on the negative consequences of underage drinking is unlikely to affect young people's alcohol use. 85 Not only is drinking likely to be entrenched in community and peer group norms, but also young people tend to be risk-takers and to deny their vulnerability to both short- and long-term consequences. Most importantly, consequence-focused campaigns rarely address the motivations for underage drinking—nor do they offer realistic or practical alternatives.