Underage Drinking

Underage drinking is a public health problem that impacts everyone. All states have laws minimum drinking age laws prohibiting people under the age of 21 from purchasing alcohol. Despite these laws, a large portion of high school students reported to having at least one alcoholic beverage in their lifetime. In most states, it is illegal for adults to purchase alcohol for youth, yet most underage drinkers admit to getting alcohol for free from a family member or friend. Lastly, when underage drinkers consume alcohol, they drink a lot. And, binge drinking is common for this age group. This is alarming considering the fact that drinking often leads to other risky behaviors that can impact not just the underage drinker, but also the people around them. Accordingly, strategies to prevent underage drinking target youth, adults and the community.


Underage Drinking Patterns

Alcohol contributes to 4,358 deaths each year. In 2010, approximately 190,000 youth visited the emergency room for alcohol-related injuries.

All states have laws minimum drinking age laws prohibiting people under the age of 21 from purchasing or consuming alcohol but a majority of teens report that they have already tried alcohol at least once. By age 15, about 35 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink. By age 18, about 65 percent of teens have had at least 1 drink.

Youth drink less often than adults, but when they drink, they consume larger amounts of liquor in shorter periods of time. Ninety percent of the alcohol consumed by underage drinkers is consumed in the form of binge drinking.


Youth Access to Alcohol

In most states, it is illegal for adults to purchase alcohol for youth. Yet, a recent survey revealed that 9 out of 10 youth who drink alcohol get it for free, through family members, friends, or from their own home without permission. Underage drinkers who pay for alcohol usually give money to someone else to buy it. Another study found that 60%-70% of teens that drink reported drinking at an unsupervised party.


How Alcohol Effects Underage Drinkers

  • Alcohol Dependency—Youth who drink alcohol at early ages in life are 4 times more likely to develop an alcohol dependency later in life.
  • Behavior—A recent survey revealed that 10% of high school students drove after drinking alcohol, and 22% rode with a driver who had been drinking alcohol. Impairment also increases the risk of carrying out or becoming a victim of physical or sexual assault.
  • Brain Development—Research shows that brain development continues until a person is in their mid-20’s. Alcohol can alter brain structure and functioning for youth who begin drinking at early ages. These effects can lead to learning disabilities or alcohol dependency later in life.


Prevention Efforts to Reduce Underage Drinking

A key strategy for reducing underage drinking has been restricting youth access to alcohol. Minimum legal drinking age laws have been in effect in all states since 1988. There is strong evidence these laws have reduced underage drinking, impaired driving crashes, and alcohol-related injuries among youth since their inception. Listed below are other strategies that work to restrict youth access to alcohol. These countermeasures are targeted at youth, adults and alcohol vendors.

Strategies Targeted at Alcohol Vendors

  • Point-of-sale training: Server training educates merchants on their legal responsibilities and on effective techniques for controlling sales to minors, as well as individuals who are intoxicated.
  • Compliance checks: Also known as Covert Underage Buyer (CUB) or decoy programs, these police-supervise undercover programs test an alcohol vendor’s willingness to sell to underage buyers.
  • Source investigations: An enforcement strategy to determine where alcohol was purchased and/or consumed when an alcohol-impaired driving crash has occurred.

Strategies Targeted at Adults

  • Keg registration laws: These laws link beer keg purchasers to an identification number on the keg, which provides a method of identifying adults who supply beer at parties attended by youth. The requirements vary widely from the definition of what constitutes a keg to the type of purchaser information is required.
  • Social Host Laws: Under social host laws, adults who provide alcohol to people under 21 – or who allow underage drinking to occur on their property – can be held accountable, especially if liable if the young person is subsequently involved in a crash. Policies vary state-by-state.

Social host laws are designed to hold adults liable for underage drinking that they knowingly allow to occur on their property or in premises under their control. Through social host laws, individuals that serve alcohol to those under age 21 can be held civilly or criminally liable for injuries, damage, or illegal activity conducted by underage drinkers.

Under social hosting laws, adults do not have to be present at a party to be charged but states do typically have to prove some standard of knowledge, ranging from overt knowledge of a party to at the very least negligence (“they should have known”).  The penalty for a first time criminal offense is typically a misdemeanor, but can escalate to a felony for repeat offenses. Under laws that allow social hosts to be civilly liable, civil damages can be much more significant.

Strategies Targeted at Youth

  • Tamper-proof licenses: Licenses issued to persons under age 21 that are difficult to replicate and easily distinguishable in appearance from driver’s licenses issued to persons 21 years of age and older. A rather new approach is to print the license vertically rather than horizontally.
  • Use-and-lose laws: These laws allow confiscation of the driver’s license or postponement of licensure for a period of time for youth who violate a state’s minimum legal drinking age law.
  • Cops in shops: In these programs, convenience and retail stores cooperate with the police by permitting undercover officers to pose as employees. Each business affixes a sticker to its door, warning that there may be an undercover officer on the premises. The officers apprehend minors attempting to purchase alcohol with no identification (ID), a false ID, or an altered ID.