Police alcohol checks put sales to teens on ice
March 3, 2005
GAINESVILLE, Fla. --- Carloads of young people are dusting off the flip-flops, icing down the beer and heading to warmer climes this month for the annual ritual of alcohol-fueled partying known as Spring Break. The participants include many college and high school students under the drinking age who all too often are able to purchase alcoholic beverages illegally.
Now new research shows law enforcement authorities trying to shut off the tap might be wise to step up the patrols year-round, not just in the next few weeks, report University of Florida and University of Minnesota researchers in the current issue of the journal Addiction. Findings from a five-year national study they conducted reveal that police checks of establishments that sell alcohol strongly deter sales to minors, and are even more effective when repeated as often as every three months.
The researchers also found that these checks, in which an underage buyer attempts to purchase alcohol without showing identification and violators are cited, work far better than programs that train staff at bars and restaurants to identify and refuse service to minors.
“We found that enforcement has significant effects, but just like enforcement against any offense, you can’t just do it once and think it solves everything,” said Alexander C. Wagenaar, a professor of epidemiology and health policy research at UF’s College of Medicine. “We have to create an ongoing perception on the part of the managers and owners of these establishments that they have a decent chance of getting caught if they sell to teenagers.”
The study was conducted against a backdrop of concern about the use of alcohol by young people on college campuses and elsewhere. Alcohol consumption, often to the point of intoxication, plays a role in a range of negative health consequences, including car crashes, risky sex, assaults, recreational injuries, suicide and alcohol dependence.
“We’re looking at a behavior that is a leading cause of death among teenagers and young adults,” Wagenaar said. “All major causes of death and injury among teens have a substantial proportion that involve alcohol. So if you narrow down that pipeline flow of alcohol to youth, and attenuate their drinking behavior, the health benefits are large.”
In their study, funded by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Wagenaar and his colleagues evaluated two key strategies used to limit the sale of alcohol to minors — one based on deterrence, the other on compliance. These techniques have been studied before but never in such a controlled way nor over so long a period as in this project, according to the authors.
The study involved 942 establishments that sold alcohol in 20 Midwestern cities. They included locations where alcohol drinks were served on the premises — bars, restaurants and bowling alleys — as well as “off-premise” sales establishments such as liquor, grocery and convenience stores.
Every two weeks, these firms were visited by youthful-looking individuals who attempted to purchase alcohol without providing proof of age. The purchasers were actually 21 or older, but appeared to be younger, as judged by members of a panel working with the authors. Over the course of the study, such purchase attempts were made 7,242 times and alcohol was sold to the pseudo-underage customer in about one out of five encounters.
Wagenaar likened this activity to continually “taking the temperature of the community” with respect to its propensity to sell alcohol to minors. While these attempted purchases continued, 959 enforcement checks were conducted independently by state or local alcohol enforcement authorities. By obtaining reports of these activities, the researchers could chart their deterrent effect over time via follow-up attempts to purchase at the same establishments.
Law enforcement checks on establishments selling alcohol for off-premise consumption produced an immediate 17 percent decrease in the subsequent likelihood of their selling to minors, said Wagenaar and his colleagues, Traci L. Toomey and Darin J. Erickson, of the University of Minnesota. That reduction dissipated over time, from 11 percent two weeks after a check to 3 percent after two months. Most of the residual effect disappeared after three months.
A 17 percent decrease is “a substantial effect” for one check, said Wagenaar, noting that many communities perform enforcement checks only once a year or less.
Checks of on-premise establishments yielded even better results, with a 17 percent decrease immediately afterward, diminishing to 14 percent at two weeks and 11 percent at two months.
“This study underscores the potential for enforcement of underage alcohol sales laws to reduce underage access to alcohol,” said Ralph Hingson, director of the division of epidemiology and prevention research at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
On the compliance side, about a third of the intervention establishments voluntarily underwent a formal training program in alcohol risk management at the outset of the study. Yet researchers found that training had virtually no effect on the likelihood of illegal alcohol sales to youth.
“Although it can be part of a comprehensive approach, just training the staff that serve alcohol without an active enforcement effort is not effective,” Wagenaar said.
The researchers looked at other influences on an establishment’s propensity to sell alcohol. They included media reports of enforcement checks and word-of-mouth communication between businesses.
The study was carried out during a national downward trend in the tendency of alcohol establishments to sell to underage youth. In the early ’90s, the rate was 50 percent to 80 percent, Wagenaar said. In the study just completed, it was roughly 20 percent.
“Communities have stepped up enforcement,” he said. “There is much more carding going on now than there was in the ’80s and ’90s. There has been substantial progress, but most communities still pay way too little attention to enforcing the law against sales of alcohol to minors.”
For more information contact:
Tom Fortner, (352) 392-9542, firstname.lastname@example.org
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