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Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility
problems, including reducing underage access to alcohol (Holder et al., 1997a, 1997b, 2000; Wagenaar et al., 1999, 2000a; Wagenaar and Perry, 1994).
To some extent, merely declaring that alcohol should not be sold or given to underage youths will curtail access because many adults support the prohibition and are in the habit of complying with the law (Tyler, 1992; Tyler and Huo, 2002). However, these “declarative” effects of the law (Bonnie, 1982) can easily be eroded if youthful drinking is regarded as an unimportant or expected deviance and if no meaningful efforts are taken to enforce the prohibition. For example, bans against selling tobacco to minors became trivialized over decades of inattention until the public, and the government, began to take them seriously in the 1990s (Institute of Medicine, 1994a). Although youth access restrictions to alcohol have never fallen into such complete disregard, they are easily evaded because alcohol is so widely available through so many channels and because the adult world is ambivalent about how forcefully they should be enforced. In this context, the declarative effects of the law cannot be expected to do all the work; deterrence through threatened sanctions, both legal and social, is needed. In this sense, enforcement, and public awareness of enforcement, are essential if restrictions on youth access to alcohol are to be effectively implemented.
It is clear from the available research that the effectiveness of youth access restrictions and other alcohol control policies depends heavily on the intensity of implementation and enforcement and on the degree to which the intended targets are aware of both the policy and its enforcement (Grube and Nygaard, 2001; Hingson et al., 1988a, 1988b; Voas et al., 1998). Another potentially important element in increasing the effectiveness of youth access restrictions or other alcohol control policies is public support. Implementing effective polices will be very difficult if law enforcement officers and community leaders believe that there is little community support for such activities (Wagenaar and Wolfson, 1994, 1995). The strategic use of media can help overcome such resistance and elicit public support for limiting access (Holder and Treno, 1997).
Alcohol control is primarily a state responsibility under the 21st Amendment to the Constitution. In some states, counties and municipalities are permitted to take steps to control drinking that may be stricter than those required by state law. However, the National Minimum Drinking Age Act, enacted by the Congress in 1984, requires states to adopt a minimum drinking age of 21 for “purchase or public possession” of alcohol as a condition for receiving federal highway funds. As a result, all 50 states and the District of Columbia now set the minimum drinking or purchase age at 21.