Neighborhoods influence alcohol sales to underage youth and intoxicated patrons

  • Despite the illegality of alcohol sales to underage youth and intoxicated patrons, the rates of successful purchases remain high.
  • Research has found that successful purchases are related to neighborhood racial and ethnic composition, population density, and clerk/server characteristics.

Alcohol use clearly contributes to problems among American youth and young adults. Of the more than 6,000 motor-vehicle-crash fatalities among youth (ages 15 to 20) in 2000, nearly 40 percent (2,339) were alcohol-related, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. According to national-level analysis from 1998, youth and young adults (ages 15 to 29) committed 37 percent of violent incidents involving alcohol (as recorded by the police). Providing alcohol to minors and intoxicated patrons is illegal, yet it continues and likely contributes to these statistics.

A study of alcohol sales to individuals who appear underage or intoxicated, published in the March issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, has found that successful purchases are related to neighborhood racial and ethnic composition, population density, and clerk/server characteristics.

"At the very least, these results should help focus attention on sales to underage youth and intoxicated patrons because they are illegal," said Bridget Freisthler, associate research scientist at the Prevention Research Center. "More importantly, these types of alcohol sales may be related to what is called ‘early onset’ of alcohol use among underage youth, injury and violent incidents."

"Alcohol sales to youth and to intoxicated persons are important public health problems," added Rhonda Jones-Webb, associate professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Minnesota. "Policy makers should be concerned about the ease with which minors and intoxicated persons purchase alcohol, because alcohol is associated with numerous problems including traffic crashes, assaults, homicides, suicides, and drownings."

Researchers used three procedures to collect data from randomly selected alcohol establishments in a city in northern California. The first involved "scouting" establishments to obtain information on neighborhood and premise characteristics. The second involved sending pseudo-intoxicated male customers to on-premise establishments (n=135), such as bars and restaurants, to determine rates of alcohol service. The third involved sending of-age female customers who appeared to be minors to off-premise establishments (n=139), such as liquor stores, to determine rates of alcohol sales.

Apparent minors were able to purchase alcohol 39 percent of the time, while pseudo-intoxicated customers were served alcohol 58 percent of the time. Apparent minors were more likely to purchase alcohol in neighborhoods with higher percentages of Hispanic residents. Pseudo-intoxicated customers were more likely to purchase alcohol in Hispanic neighborhoods when the server was male and appeared to be younger than 30 years of age. Both forms of illegal sales were more likely in highly populated areas.

"Our findings suggest that dense Hispanic neighborhoods have higher rates of sales," said Freisthler. "Because of this, they may also have higher rates of alcohol-related problems, such as traffic crashes, pedestrian injuries, and assaults."

"These findings are not surprising," said Jones-Webb, noting previous studies that have found similar if not higher rates of sales. "However, they are disappointing, because they suggest that laws that make it illegal to sell alcohol to minors and laws that make merchants liable for serving intoxicated persons are not being adequately enforced or implemented."

Jones-Webb said these findings have at least two important implications for community-based alcohol prevention efforts. "First, the findings highlight the importance of designing [a] multicomponent alcohol prevention [approach.] This might include Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) programs, designed to help managers and employees refuse sales to minors or intoxicated patrons. The RBS programs could be [modified] to address the specific concerns and questions that younger, male servers may have about intoxicated patrons. [Prevention efforts] might also include a community organizing component. Community organizing can be an effective tool for mobilizing community members to implement alcohol policies that restrict the number, type, and location of alcohol outlets, and that change merchant practices in communities. Second, the findings suggest particular attention needs to be given to neighborhood characteristics, such as the racial/ethnic composition of neighborhoods, when designing community-based alcohol prevention efforts. Such information is important in understanding the broader social and cultural context in which sales to minors and intoxicated persons arises and in prioritizing and targeting program resources."

Freisthler concurred. "Communities can act to reduce neighborhood access to alcohol among young people and intoxicated patrons by working with local law enforcement officials," she said. "In addition, residents can work to change existing planning and zoning laws in order to limit the number of alcohol outlets in neighborhood areas and/or increase the distance between outlets."

Freisthler and her colleagues plan to test their theories. "Currently we are conducting a major neighborhood-based preventative intervention study in the same city that is focusing on reducing alcohol access to underage youth and intoxicated patrons as a way to reduce alcohol-related problems in neighborhood areas," she said.

Funding for this Addiction Science Made Easy project is provided by the Addiction Technology Transfer Center National Office, under the cooperative agreement from the Center for Substance Abuse Treatment of SAMHSA.

Articles were written based on the following published research:

Freisthler, B., Gruenewald, P.J.,Treno, A.J., Lee, J. (March 2003). Evaluating alcohol access and the alcohol environment in neighborhood areas. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, 27(3), 477-485.