2018 POP Conference
November 5–7, 2018
Providence, Rhode Island

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The Problem of Underage Drinking

This guide begins by describing the problem of underage drinking , and reviewing factors that contribute to it. It then identifies a series of questions to help you analyze your local underage drinking problem. Finally, it reviews responses to the problem, and what is known about them from evaluative research and police practice.

† There are many labels used to describe underage drinking and its negative consequences. These include “binge drinking,” “high-risk drinking,” “heaving drinking,” and “risky drinking,” among others. Controversy about proper terminology comes from disagreement about how to quantify the amount of alcohol consumed and the time period in which it is consumed, and to what extent these measurements account for physical characteristics of the drinker (e.g., weight, gender) that are related to the effects of alcohol.

Young people use alcohol more than any other drug, including tobacco.1 Underage drinking­­—that is, drinking under the age of 21—is prohibited throughout the United States. Despite a historical lack of vigorous enforcement, minimum-drinking-age laws have been very effective in reducing many of the harms associated with underage drinking,2 such as traffic fatalities and alcohol-related injuries, as well as assaults and other crimes. There is significant potential for further harm reduction if additional strategies targeting the factors underlying the problem are implemented.

† There are several national efforts to combat the problem: see the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention’s “ Enforcing the Underage Drinking Laws” program (www.ncjrs.org/html/ojjdp/compendium/2001/contents.html), [PDF] the Pacific Institute of Research and Evaluation website (www.udetc.org), and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation’s “ A Matter of Degree” program designed to discourage drinking on college campuses(www.ama-assn.org/ama/pub/category/3558.html).

Virtually all high school students and most college students are under 21. However, most drink alcohol at least occasionally, and many drink frequently and heavily. They can get alcohol for free or at low prices, which contributes to their drinking at levels that significantly increase their risk of negative alcohol-related consequences.3 The proportion of underage youth who drink has not changed significantly over the past decade in the United States.4 Indeed, if anything, they are starting to drink at a younger age, and their drinking patterns are becoming more extreme.5

† Recent surveys of U.S. high school and college students showed that one-half to three-quarters of high school students had tried alcohol (Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman 2002) [Full text] and two out of every three underage college students surveyed had drunk alcohol in the past 30 days (Wechsler 2001). [Full text]

Underage drinkers experience a wide range of alcohol-related health, social, criminal justice, and academic problems. They do not all experience the same level of problems—those who drink more, and drink more often, suffer a greater number of negative consequences. However, negative consequences occur across a wide range of consumption levels and frequencies.

Young drinkers report a range of negative effects from alcohol, all of which can lead to troubled interactions with others, particularly police officers or other responsible adults who try to intervene.6 These include the following:

These effects often lead young drinkers to come into contact with police, either as offenders or as victims. Youths who drink heavily are more likely to carry handguns than those who do not drink.7 Alcohol use contributes to property damage, rape, and other violent crime on college campuses,8 and about half of college crime victims have been drinking before the crime occurs.9 A significant proportion of young drivers killed in car accidents are intoxicated when the crash occurs.10

Picture of a youth with a police officer.

Despite widespread use, relatively few underage drinkers experience any legal or school-based consequences for their behavior. Credit: David Corbett]

Further, underage college students who drink heavily are more likely to miss class, fall behind in school, sustain an injury, have unplanned or unprotected sex, drive after drinking, or have contact with campus police. ,11 Students also experience “secondhand” effects of others’ alcohol misuse, such as having their sleep or study time interrupted; having to take care of an intoxicated friend; being insulted or humiliated by drinkers; receiving unwanted sexual advances; getting in serious arguments; having their personal property damaged; being assaulted, sexually or otherwise; and being raped by an acquaintance.12 There are also a number of physical and mental health-related consequences of alcohol use, which are detailed elsewhere.

† While a number of studies reveal a correlation between alcohol consumption and negative or high-risk behavior (e.g., violent behavior, unprotected sexual activity), this relationship does not necessarily mean that alcohol causes these behaviors. Instead, there may be situational or personality factors underlying both the drinking and the high-risk behavior. For more information, see Gottfredson and Hirschi (1990).

†† For example, see National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2000) [Full text], and Institute of Alcohol Studies (2003). [Full text]

Very few college students experience any college-based disciplinary action as a result of their drinking, despite widespread use and serious consequences for the individuals, their peers, and their communities.13 The past decade has witnessed increased concern about and creativity in confronting the issue, and both adults and youths support measures to prevent underage drinking. Given the issue’s complexity, it is important to understand how the problem takes shape in your community. Analyzing the factors that contribute to your local underage drinking problem will help you to select the most effective responses.

Related Problems

Underage drinking is associated with a number of other problems not directly addressed in this guide, but many are covered in other guides in this series. These related problems require their own analyses and responses:

Factors Contributing to Underage Drinking

Understanding the factors that contribute to your problem will help you frame your own local analysis questions, determine good effectiveness measures, recognize key intervention points, and select appropriate responses.

Why Underage People Drink

Some researchers have found that drinking, particularly among underage college students, “is often so routine that people find it difficult to explain why they do it.”14 However, there are several common themes that appear to underlie underage drinking. Many see drinking as a “rite of passage,” or a fundamental part of adolescence and college life. Young people develop beliefs about the acceptability of underage drinking from their peers, parents, and other agents of informal social control.15 Many young people believe that drinking will make it easier to be part of a group, reduce tension, relieve stress, help them to forget their worries, increase their sexual attractiveness, or make them more socially confident.16 People who attribute such benefits to alcohol are more likely to drink than people who believe drinking has more negative consequences (e.g., loss of control, legal troubles, health problems).17

Young people often go out intending to get drunk, and may try to intensify their drunkenness by drinking a lot very quickly or drinking especially strong liquor. However, many young people unintentionally get drunk when they misjudge their limits.18

Many young people do not drink at all, or drink at minimal levels. Their decision not to drink or to drink in moderation appears to result from a combination of factors:19

In addition, much research suggests that young people—college students in particular—drink because they assume everyone else does.20 Students consistently overestimate the amount that other students drink and the proportion of their fellow students who are heavy drinkers.21 Given that adolescents and young adults are susceptible to peer pressure and want to conform, it is likely that their perceptions of others’ alcohol use influence their own drinking, whether or not their perceptions are correct.

Environmental Reasons for Underage Drinking

Underage drinking occurs in an environment saturated by alcohol advertising on television, on billboards, at sporting and music events, and in national and local newspapers. The alcohol industry spends far more to promote its products than is spent on public messages encouraging responsible drinking.22 This media saturation may promote, facilitate, and perpetuate heavy drinking among young people. In addition, many products (e.g., alcopops, wine coolers) have hip, colorful, youth-oriented packaging and are likely to appeal mainly to young people.

In addition, young people, particularly those in college, are surrounded by outlets (e.g., grocery and convenience stores) that sell alcohol to be consumed elsewhere, or “off premises,” as well as “on-premises” outlets such as bars and restaurants. High concentrations of alcohol outlets are associated with higher rates of heavy drinking and drinking-related problems among college students.23

Picture of a drink specials sign posted at a bar.

Drink specials encourage heavy drinking among all customers, some of whom may be underage. Credit: David Corbett

Alcohol outlets and advertisers team up to provide an additional incentive for underage drinking: price promotions and drink specials. In general, lower prices result in higher consumption levels across all age levels.24 Price promotions offer discounts for high-volume purchases, such as kegs and cases of beer. College campuses near retailers that sell large volumes of low-price alcohol have higher rates of binge drinking than those campuses near outlets that do not sell discount alcohol.25 Many bars and restaurants have discount prices (e.g., during happy hour) and drink specials (e.g., two for one, ladies drink free) that encourage heavy drinking among all customers, some of whom may be underage.

Many high school and college students say that they attend parties or go out drinking because “there is nothing else to do.” Like older adults, adolescents and young adults enjoy socializing and need a variety of avenues to interact with peers, make new friends, and pursue romantic relationships. In the absence of alcohol-free places to socialize, young people go to parties where alcohol is present, and may succumb to peer pressure to drink.

How Underage Drinkers Obtain Alcohol

Underage drinkers obtain alcohol from two main sources: third parties, such as legal-age friends, siblings, and strangers; and commercial outlets, such as stores, bars, and restaurants (often by using a fake ID).26

Home is the primary source of alcohol among the youngest drinkers.27 Some youth take alcohol from their parents’ liquor cabinets without their parents’ knowledge. Some parents supply their underage children with alcohol at special events such as graduations, weddings, or holiday parties.

Underage drinkers sometimes ask strangers to buy alcohol for them, often in exchange for a fee or a portion of the alcohol purchased. This practice is called “shoulder tapping”—underage youth wait outside a store and tap a stranger on the shoulder to make the request.28

Most underage drinkers report it is “very easy” to obtain alcohol; about one in four underage college students report that they can buy alcohol without age verification, or with a fake ID.29 Studies of alcohol purchases across the country reveal that, depending on the location and the environmental context, 40 to 90 percent of retail outlets have sold alcohol to underage buyers.30

In some cases, retailers do not ask for ID. In others, underage drinkers present an ID card that has been altered to indicate they are of legal drinking age, or an ID card that belongs to someone who is of legal drinking age. The underage drinker may resemble the person in the photograph, or may substitute his or her own picture and relaminate the card. People can purchase fake IDs on the Internet, buy them directly from counterfeiters, or use fraudulent documents to get a driver’s license. Recent advancements in technology have made the counterfeiting of state-issued ID cards easier, using a scanner and a color printer.31 Use of fake IDs is more common in urban areas and in states without consistent enforcement of underage purchase laws.32 Furthermore, young people are more likely to obtain and use a fake ID if they think their peers support the practice.33

Where Underage Drinking Occurs

Underage people drink at a variety of locations, including the following:

Spring break is a college ritual associated with excessive drinking and other high-risk, extreme behavior. One study of students visiting a Florida beach community during spring break found that 75 percent of the males reported being intoxicated at least once per day, while 40 percent of females reported the same.39 More than 50 percent of the men and more than 40 percent of the women reported drinking until they got sick or until they passed out at least once during the weeklong period. Given that people usually vomit when their body’s blood alcohol content (BAC) reaches approximately 0.16, and lose consciousness at a BAC of approximately 0.30, it is clear that many students on spring break are drinking at unsafe levels.40

In addition, high school and college students often play any of hundreds of drinking games. 41

These games encourage heavy drinking, and the resulting inability to follow game rules leads to even more drinking.

Understanding Your Local Problem

The information provided above is only a generalized description of underage drinking. You must combine the basic facts with a more specific understanding of your local problem. Analyzing the local problem carefully will help you design a more effective response strategy. You will likely find that effective responses to combat underage drinking will also result in reductions in alcohol-related crime such as drunken driving, assault, property damage, and noise violations.

Asking the Right Questions

The following are some critical questions you should ask in analyzing your particular underage drinking problem, even if the answers are not always readily available. Your answers to these and other questions will help you choose the most appropriate set of responses later on. Because police may not know how much underage drinking occurs in a community, you should use multiple information sources, including police records, juvenile police officers or school resource officers, state and local alcohol beverage control (ABC) records, school faculty, parents and parent advocate groups, underage drinkers, underage nondrinkers, and observations of youth, alcohol outlets, and areas where underage people drink.

Further, it may be helpful for police to link with local colleges, universities, or researchers to design, test, and administer surveys for high school students, college students, and underage nonstudents.

† Using survey questions similar to those in the most widely used instruments, such as the College Alcohol Survey or the Monitoring the Future study, will allow you to compare your jurisdiction’s trends with national trends. [Full text]




Alcohol Sources

† The Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation has produced a monograph on conducting alcohol purchase surveys. It is available on the Internet at www.udetc.org/documents/purchase.pdf [PDF].


Special Events

Current Responses

Measuring Your Effectiveness

Measurement allows you to determine to what degree your efforts have succeeded, and suggests how you might modify your responses if they are not producing the intended results. You should take measures of underage drinking before you implement responses, to determine how serious the problem is, and after you implement them, to determine whether they have been effective. All measures should be taken in both the target area and the surrounding area. (For more detailed guidance on measuring effectiveness, see the companion guide to this series, Assessing Responses to Problems: An Introductory Guide for Police Problem-Solvers.)

The following are potentially useful measures of the effectiveness of responses to underage drinking:

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 communitys 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:
  1. 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
  1. 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.††

† 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.

††You can find a description of each state’s statutes at http://www.nllea.org/reports/ABC EnforcementLegalResearch.pdf.

  1. 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. Providing treatment or feedback. Cognitivebehavioral 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

Responses That Target Commercial Access to Alcohol

  1. 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

ID guides can help doormen to identify
documents that have been falsified.
Credit: David Corbett

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

†See Walters (2000) for sample feedback forms.

†† Several companies publish reference books of each state’s ID cards. For example, see http://www.idcheckingguide.com/

  1. 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

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

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.

  1. 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:†

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

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

  1. 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
  2. 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.
  3. 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

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-serviceand- 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

  1. 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.
  2. 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

  1. 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

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

hotline poster

Well-publicized hotlines can be
a valuable source of information
about party locations.
Source: Texas Alcohol Beverage Commision

  1. 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 easyto- remember phone number, ensuring caller anonymity, and staffing the hotline with nonpolice personnel increase the likelihood people will call.
  1. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Developing campus policies to deter underage drinking. Given that college campuses are popular settings for underage drinking, it is vital that schoolspecific 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

  1. 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.

  1. 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

  1. 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
  2. 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.

Summary of Responses to Underage Drinking

The table below summarizes the responses to underage drinking, the mechanism by which they are intended to work, the conditions under which they ought to work best, and some factors you should consider before implementing a particular response. 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.

General Considerations for an Effective Response Strategy
# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
1 Reducing the community’s overall alcohol consumption Changes community norms about drinking …multiple responses are used simultaneously May not address the specific reasons for, locations of, and problems associated with underage drinking
2 Creating community coalitions Enlists multiple stakeholders with specific areas of expertise; reduces resistance; establishes joint ownership of the problem …resistant stakeholders are also included Requires a high level of project management to sustain interest over time
3 Using a multifaceted, comprehensive approach Addresses many of the known risk factors; prevents displacement …responses are implemented as designed and are properly sequenced Difficult to isolate a specific intervention’s effect; requires coordination; a large number of options can be overwhelming
4 Understanding your state’s laws regarding underage drinking Ensures that responses are appropriately targeted and can withstand scrutiny in court …police review the laws in consultation with the local prosecutor Frequently amended and updated, so a regular review is required
5 Avoiding overwhelming the court system Increases the likelihood of a quick response …meaningful alternative sanctions are in place Effect depends on the impact of criminal versus noncriminal sanctions among the target group

Specific Responses to Underage Drinking

Responses That Target the Motivation to Drink

# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
6 Implementing a “social norms” program Corrects misperceptions about the proportion of peers who drink; uses adolescents’ desire to conform to reduce drinking …the message is simple, memorable, truthful, and reinforced Gives the message that some underage drinking is acceptable; could encourage those who drink less than the norm to increase their consumption in order to fit in
7 Raising underage drinkers’ awareness of their behavior’s impact on other people


Uses peer pressure to encourage underage drinkers to control their behavior …victimized students are empowered, specific statistics that show widespread impact are used, and additional information resources are provided Risk of reinforcing a “party school” image; risk that nondrinkers will be ostracized if they are not sufficiently empowered
8 Providing treatment or feedback Provides personalized feedback on the level of risk underage drinkers face; provides them with skills to help break their drinking habits …it is not seen as punishment, is nonjudgmental, and provides alternative ways of behaving Those who most need intervention may be the ones who don’t show up for or drop out of treatment

Responses That Target Commercial Access to Alcohol

# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
9 Improving the ability to detect fake IDs Eliminates a tool commonly used to obtain alcohol …servers/sellers are trained, have good reference materials and good lighting, and are supported by management Long-term effect is limited unless the original source of the IDs is addressed
10 Implementing “Responsible Beverage Service and Sales Training” programs Restricts access to sources of alcohol; provides skills and incentives for servers/sellers to comply with the law …laws are enforced, the training is mandatory, and following procedures protects businesses from dramshop liability If not mandatory, establishments may lose business to places that do not comply; requires police and management enforcement to be taken seriously
11 Enforcing minimum-age purchase laws Reinforces establishment-level procedures to refuse service to those under 21 …compliance checks are random, ongoing, and conducted on a large number of retail outlets; and administrative penalties apply to both the server/seller and the manager/owner Can be expensive in jurisdictions with large numbers of outlets
12 Conducting undercover “shoulder tap” operations Fear of sanctions deters adults from buying alcohol for minors …the undercover decoy is chosen carefully, and the operation is highly publicized both before and after it occurs Can be complicated and expensive; if not properly designed, it can be vulnerable to entrapment claims
13 Checking ID at bars and nightclubs Reinforces establishment-level procedures to refuse service to those under 21 …checks are random and ongoing, fake IDs are seized, and meaningful sanctions are applied to both the minor and the establishment Need to target a wide range of establishments to be seen as fair
14 Applying graduated sanctions to retailers that break the law Holds retailers accountable, with increasingly punitive sanctions for subsequent infractions; affects profitability …sanctions are administratively focused, and penalties are swift and certain Criminal penalties can be complex and time- consuming; need to target a wide range of establishments to be seen as fair

Responses That Target Social Access to Alcohol

# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
15 Training adults about “social host liability” Fear of sanctions deters adults from buying alcohol for minors …laws are accompanied by widespread education and awareness efforts, and enforcement is consistent Not likely to be effective without enforcement
16 Requiring keg registration Allows police to identify the retailer that furnished alcohol to minors …it is mandatory, and a fine is imposed for tampering with a tag or sticker on a keg If registration is not mandatory, establishments that voluntarily comply may lose business to those that don’t

Responses That Target Locations Where Drinking Occurs

# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
17 Developing house party guidelines, registration forms, and pre-party walk- through procedures Provides useful advice about controlling house parties …a responsible adult who is motivated to obey the law is in charge of the party Is voluntary; despite good intentions, the party may still get out of control and require police intervention
18 Setting up hotlines to gather information Helps police to identify potentially problematic party locations …the hotline is staffed by nonpolice personnel, and the number is well-publicized and easy to remember Not all information may be accurate or useful; not all parties will be discovered this way
19 Deploying party patrols Fear of sanctions deters hosts from having parties; parties where underage drinking occurs are dispersed …patrols are consistent, routine, and highly publicized; and dispersal is safe and orderly Can be cost-prohibitive and time-consuming; diverts officers from other duties
20 Imposing fines for each underage person drinking at a party Increases financial consequences of hosting a party where underage guests are drinking …fines are imposed after the initiative has been publicized and warnings have been issued, and there is significant public support May be viewed as excessively punitive
21 Using landlord-tenant ordinances and nuisance abatement procedures Uses civil remedies to target properties with a history of violations …multiple agencies are involved, and all interactions and violations have been documented Likely to require a significant time investment
22 Restricting alcohol use at popular outdoor venues and community events Adjusts community norms regarding drinking; makes it harder for underage drinkers to obtain alcohol …limitations are strictly enforced for all drinkers Requires significant manpower to enforce at big community events
23 Sponsoring alcohol-free events Decreases reliance on alcohol-centered events as a means of socializing …the events are scheduled for the times, days, and locations that have historically been the most problematic, and the events are highly publicized Needs to target those who would otherwise be drinking to have an impact on the overall underage drinking problem
24 Developing campus policies to deter underage drinking Holds students accountable, using school-based disciplinary procedures ...the policies send a consistent message about alcohol’s role on campus, problem drinking at Greek organizations is targeted, and students are involved in policy development Requires support from diverse groups of stakeholders; likely to encounter some opposition

Responses That Focus on the Consequences for Underage Drinking

# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
25 Applying administrative sanctions rather than criminal penalties Holds offenders accountable with sanctions that can be quickly applied …the alternative sanctions are meaningful, and the community supports alternative sentencing May require the creation of new programs and sanctions, or the expansion of existing ones
26 Applying informal social control Enlists people with important relationships with youths to encourage them to change their behavior …the behavior is sanctioned appropriately, and the youths are concerned about others’ opinions Requires knowledge of the significant others in minors’ lives; requires cooperation from significant others

Responses With Limited Effectiveness

# Response How It Works Works Best If… Considerations
27 Using school-based education, awareness, or values- clarification programs Assumes that knowing the facts leads to better choices   Information alone is usually insufficient to produce a change in behavior
28 Launching consequence-focused information campaigns Assumes that knowing about the negative consequences will deter dangerous or illegal behavior   Information often stands in stark contrast to young people’s experience and thus has little credibility; young people tend to deny their own vulnerability; it does not address the motivations for drinking


[1]Johnston, O’Malley, and Bachman (2002). [Full text]

[2]Wagenaar (1993).

[3]Wechsler (2001). [Full text]

[4]Keeling (2002).

[5] Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[6] Engineer et al. (2003). [Full text]

[7]Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, Office of Applied Studies (2001). [Full text]

[8]Wechsler et al. (2002); National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (1994).

[9]National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse (1994).

[10]National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (1997).

[11] Center for Science in the Public Interest (2000). [Full text]

[12]Wechsler (2001).[Full text]

[13] Keeling (2002).

[14]Engineer et al. (2003). [Full text]

[15 Bandura (1977).

[16] Christiansen et al. (1989).

[17] Christiansen et al. (1989).

[18] Engineer et al. (2003). [Full text]

[19] Hirschi (1969); Durkin, Wolfe, and Clark (1999). [Full text]

[20] Perkins and Berkowitz (1986); Perkins (2002).

[21] Perkins (2002).

[22] Center on Alcohol Marketing and Youth (2003).

[23]Weitzman et al. (2003).

[24]Wechsler and Wuethrich (2002).

[25]Kuo et al. (2003). [Full text]

[26]Wagenaar et al. (1996).

[27]Wagenaar et al. (1996).

[28]Powell and Willingham (n.d.).

[29]Wechsler and Wuethrich (2002).

[30]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[31]Myers and Willingham (2001). [Full text]

[32]Preusser et al. (1995).

[33]Durkin, Wolfe, and Phillips (1996).

[34]Morrison and Didone (2000). [Full text]

[35]Wechsler and Wuethrich (2002).

[36]Wechsler and Wuethrich (2002).

[37]Michigan State University, Department of Police and Public Safety (1998).[Full text]

[38]Walter et al. (2001). [Full text available]

[39]Smeaton and Josalm (1998).

[40]BRAD (n.d.). [Full text]

[41]Borsari, Bergen-Cico, and Carey (2003).

[42]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[43]Weitzman et al. (2004).

[44]Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (2003). [Full text]

[45]Wichita Police Department (1999).[Full text]

[46]Charlotte-Mecklenburg Police Department (1998).[Full text]

[47]Haines (1996). [Full text]

[48]Haines (1996).[Full text]

[49]DeJong (2002). [Full text]

[50]DeJong (2002).[Full text]

[51]Larimer and Cronce (2002).

[52]Larimer and Cronce (2002).

[53]Myers and Willingham (2001)[Full text]; Michigan State University , Department of Police and Public Safety (1998).[Full text]

[54]Kanable (2002).

[55]National Liquor Law Enforcement Association (2003).[Full text]

[56]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003)[Full text available]; Wolfson et al. (1996).

[57]Alcohol Epidemiology Program (n.d.). [Full text]

[58][58]Alliance Against Underage Drinking (n.d.).

[59]Reece (1984).

[60]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[61]Michigan State University, Department of Police and Public Safety (1998).[Full text]

[62]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[63]Mosher and Stewart (1999). [Full text]

[64]Ross (1992).

[65]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003).[Full text available]

[66]Mothers Against Drunk Driving (2002).

[67]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[68]Michigan State University, Department of Police and Public Safety (1998).[Full text]

[69]Adams (2003).

[70]Morrison and Didone (2000).[Full text]

[71]Boulder Police Department (1997).[Full text]

[72]Hechtkopf, Woods-Issacs, and Jamieson (2001).

[73]Walski (2002).

[74]Morrison and Didone (2000).[Full text]

[75]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003).[Full text available]

[76]Weitzman et al. (2004).

[77]University of Alaska, Fairbanks (2000). [Full text]

[78]Weitzman et al. (2004).

[79]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[80]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[81]Ulmer, Shabanova, and Preusser (2001). [Full text]

[82]Bonnie and O’Connell (2003). [Full text available]

[83]DeJong and Langford (2002); Weitzman et al. (2004).

[84]Larimer and Cronce (2002).

[85]DeJong (2002).[Full text]


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Related POP Projects


The quality and focus of these submissions vary considerably. With the exception of those submissions selected as winners or finalists, these documents are unedited and are reproduced in the condition in which they were submitted. They may nevertheless contain useful information or may report innovative projects.

Alcohol Response Project, Michigan State University Police (MI, US), 1998

Antisocial Behaviour at Harry Road Park, South Yorkshire Police (South Yorkshire, UK), 2009

Combatting Underage Drinking, Central Connecticut State University Police and New Britain Police (CT, US), 2009

Educating Parents and Teachers to Detect Alcohol and Drug Use, Gulf Breeze Police Department (FL, US), 2004

Enough is Enough: A Plan to Address Alcohol Use Among Our Communities Youth, Boulder Police Department (CO, US), 1994

Every 15 Minutes Program, Benton Police Department (AR, US), 2007

Juvenile Underage Drinking Group Education/Enforcement (JUDGE) Coalition, Wichita Police Department (KS, US), 1999

Kingscote Park 2004, Lancashire Constabulary (Lancashire, UK), 2005

Let's Dance: A Community's Collaborative Response to an All Ages Nightclub [Goldstein Award Finalist], Halton Regional Police Service (ON, CA), 2002

Mackinaw River Bridge Project, Illinois State Police (IL, US), 2003

Operation Bottoms Up and Operation Too Young, Dublin Police Department (OH, US), 1999

Operation Calm, Lancashire Constabulary (Lancashire, UK), 2002

OPERATION FIRST STRIKE, Humberside Police Department (Hull, UK), 2010

Parents as Partners, South Yorkshire Police (Sheffield District, UK), 2009

Reducing Crime and Disorder in the City of Wells, Somerset, Avon and Somerset Constabulary (Bristol, UK), 2001

Underage Drinking: More than a MINOR Issue [Goldstein Award Finalist], Plano Police Department (TX, US), 2003