Cover Image


View/Hide Left Panel

ever having tried to purchase alcohol, in comparison with 59 percent of college students in Pennsylvania where the laws regarding purchase, possession, and the use of false identification of alcohol were much stricter (Preusser et al., 1995). Similarly, 43 percent of New York high school students and 30 percent of Pennsylvania high school students reported ever having tried to purchase alcohol.

Ultimately, adults are responsible for young people obtaining alcohol by selling, providing, or otherwise making it available to them. Given the fact that young people use multiple sources for alcohol, efforts to target underage access should not focus exclusively on commercial access to alcohol, but should also address social availability through parents, friends, and strangers (Holder, 1994).


Commercial access to alcohol takes place primarily through on-license and off-license establishments. On-license establishments are permitted to sell alcohol for consumption at the location where the sale is made; they include bars, restaurants, roadhouses, theaters, and similar places of business. Off-license establishments are permitted to sell alcohol for consumption at other locations; they include liquor stores, markets, convenience stores, and similar venues. In addition to on- and off-license establishments, some states allow home delivery and Internet sales of alcohol.

States differ considerably in their regulatory practices, ranging from those with complete state-run retail or wholesale monopolies and distribution systems to those where retail and wholesale alcohol sales and distribution are completely private. To some extent, retail alcohol sales can also be regulated at the local or municipal level through the use of local ordinances, conditional use permits, and zoning. Some states also allow for a “local option” through which municipalities or counties can prohibit or limit alcohol sales. Local ordinances can send a very strong message about what a community considers to be acceptable norms concerning underage drinking.

As noted above, young people under 21 can and do purchase alcohol in commercial settings, notwithstanding the fact that such sales are illegal everywhere. Purchase surveys in the United States show that anywhere from 40 percent to 90 percent of outlets sell to underage buyers, depending on location (e.g., Forster et al., 1994, 1995; Preusser and Williams, 1992; Grube, 1997). In part, these high sales rates result from low and inconsistent levels of enforcement against adults who sell or provide alcohol to minors and from perceptions on the part of law enforcement officers that there is little community support for such prevention efforts (Wagenaar and Wolfson, 1994, 1995).

The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine
500 Fifth St. N.W. | Washington, D.C. 20001

Copyright © National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Terms of Use and Privacy Statement