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Prevention Works!




Compliance Checks and Other


Enforcement Methods to Deter


Underage Drinking




By Thomas E. Radecki, M.D., J.D., Research Director

Doctors & Lawyers for a Drug Free Youth


Prepared for


Center for Substance Abuse Prevention

5600 Fishers Lane, Rockwall II

Rockville, MD 20857






October, 1993

Revised March, 1997






This document was prepared pursuant to a Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP) contract with Westover Consultants, Inc. Contract number 277-90-4004. The opinions expressed in this document do not necessarily reflect the opinions, official policy, or position of CSAP, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, the Public Health Service; or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It was revised by the author in 1997.



About the Author


Thomas E. Radecki is currently Research Director of Doctors & Lawyers for a Drug Free Youth (DFY), a scientific and educational effort now based in Carbondale, Illinois. He is a graduate of the Ohio State University School of Medicine and Southern Illinois University School of Law. He completed his psychiatric residency at the University of Pennsylvania. 

Radecki has extensive experience in evaluating and conducting alcohol and tobacco compliance checks in the U.S. and five other countries. Since 1994, he has had tobacco and alcohol sales to minors inspection contracts with nine different U.S. state governments and the Canadian Cancer Society and has completed over 20,000 inspections in all for either research or enforcement purposes. Radecki was a practicing psychiatrist, but now works full-time doing research to deter underage tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drug use. He has been running DFY since 1991.

Radecki currently runs both the statewide alcohol and tobacco sales to minors enforcement effort for the State of South Dakota and ran the enforcement programs for tobacco for the State of Vermont in 1998. He has also done 90% of the 1998 statewide enforcement tobacco sales to minors inspections for the State of Nevada. As of spring, 1997, South Dakota had the lowest confirmed tobacco sales to minors rate in the U.S. (14.8% to unselected 16-year-olds).  In 2001, Radecki's South Dakota program was given a national award as the best program in the U.S.

Radecki is married with three children and speaks French, Spanish, Portuguese, German, and Chinese in addition to English. His current research projects include conducting alcohol and tobacco sales to minors enforcement inspections, conducting state random purchase surveys for tobacco and alcohol, researching deterrence strategies for college drinking parties, studying the effectiveness of server training programs on fake ID identification, researching methods of improving substance abuse violation hotlines and developing informal citizen intelligence networks, conducting and researching modified school drug dog inspections (dogs that detect tobacco, alcohol, and firearms in addition to illicit drugs).

Research Office Address: 705 W. Oregon, Urbana, IL 61801

Telephone: (217) 328-3349, (800) 450-5343



Introduction & Purpose 1

What Are the Benefits of Enforcing the 21-year-old Drinking Age? 2

Early Onset of Drinking Increases Alcoholism & Alcohol Abuse 2

Teaching Abstinence Until Age 21 Reduces Alcohol Abuse 3

How Readily Do Merchants Sell to Youth? 3

Liquor Law Enforcement: Stopping Sales to Minors 4

Compliance Checks: Evidence for Deterring Sales 5

The Impact of Compliance Checks on Consumption/Do You Need Compliance Checks? 6

The Legality of Compliance Checks 7

How to Conduct Compliance Checks 8

How Often to Conduct Compliance Checks 9

Penalties; Cost of Compliance Checks & Non-Police Inspectors 10

Citation at Time of Infraction or Mailed 11

Liability & Finding the Young People; Video/Audio Taping 12

The False ID Problem/Cops 'N Shops & Compliance Checks with False IDs 13

Steps Merchants Can Be Encouraged to Take to Deter Sales to Minors 14

The 21-year-old Bar Entry Age 15

Enforcement Directed At Minors Buying or Using Alcohol 16

Drinking Party Enforcement: High School & Community-Based 16

College Drinking Parties 18

A University Drinking Party Study & Intervention 19

Drinking Party Enforcement: Colleges; Keg Licensing; Local Ordinance Laws 21

Key to Enforcement: Gentle, Early, Firm & Frequent; Media Coverage 22

A National Monitoring System; Sign Enforcement; Bootlegging; State Stores 23

Modified Drug Dogs in Schools; Empowering School Officials; Intelligence Networks 25

Additional Addresses and Phone Numbers; Bibliography 26

Appendix: International Results; Purchase Report Form; Habit Survey; Affidavit 27-34




Adult alcohol consumption in the United States increased fairly steadily from the 1930s until 1982. In the 1960s and early 1970s, several states had lowered the minimum alcohol purchase age to 18. Any use at age 15 became at least three times higher (33%) for those turning 15 from 1986-90 than for those turning 15 in 1965 or before (9-11%). Regular use also tripled (6% v. 2%). Am J Publ Health 1/98 88:27-30. Underage tobacco has been steady for 15-year-olds since 1956 ranging from 34% to 39% and was 24% even in 1934. Marijuana for 15-year-olds rose abruptly around 1970 with under 1% before 1965 to 12% in 1971-1975. RA Johnson, Am J Publ Health 1/98, 88:27-33.

The lowering of the drinking age is reported to have resulted in a substantial increase in alcohol-related fatal crashes (Williams et al, 1975). Other factors, e.g., the nationwide drug epidemic, probably also played an important role. In the late 1970s, partly in reaction to the increase in fatal crashes, some states returned to a 21-year-old minimum purchase age requirement. States returning to the 21-year-old requirement experienced significant decreases in alcohol-related deaths among young drivers (Williams et al., 1983; DuMouchel et al, 1985).

By 1984, 23 states had a minimum alcohol purchase age of 21 and federal legislation was passed requiring a national minimum purchase age of 21. As of July 1988, all 50 states had an age 21 requirement for purchasing alcohol. All states, except Louisiana also made it illegal for merchants to sell alcohol to minors under the age of 21.

Data collected at Binghamton, New York sobriety checkpoints during the fall of 1988 showed that 16 percent of those drivers under the age of 21 had positive blood alcohol concentrations (BACs) (Preusser, Wells, and Williams, 1991). A 1989 Massachusetts survey reported that 82 percent of 16-to 19-year-olds drank within the past year and 35 percent drank five or more drinks on a typical drinking occasions (Hingson et al, 1990). The annual substance abuse surveys by the University of Michigan, has found only small decreases in the level of alcohol consumption by minors since 1982, the same year when the percent of traffic fatalities involving alcohol peaked at 57 percent. In 1991, alcohol was still involved in 48 percent of traffic fatalities.

In 1989, the percentage of fatally injured drivers younger than age 21 with 0.10 percent or higher BACs was still 32 percent. This motivated the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to conduct a study on the sales of alcohol to minors in three New York counties and Washington, D.C. (Preusser, and Williams, 1991). Preusser documented that 97 percent of Washington, D.C., 80 Percent of Westchester County, 60 percent of Schenectady County, and 35 percent of Albany alcohol merchants sold beer to 19-year-old assistants without asking for any ID. With this study and other efforts, increasing attention was focused on the enforcement and benefit of enforcing the 21-year-old drinking age law. The studies reported in this paper grew out of that effort.

In September, 1991, the U.S. Surgeon General Antonia Novello declared that the 21-year-old drinking age was a myth because of many loopholes in the various state laws and relatively poor enforcement. In July, the Surgeon General gave the nation a grade card on how well it was addressing the illegal, underage drinking problem. The nation received a "D" for failing to recognize the true consequences of underage drinking and a "C" for reducing underage drinking and minor's access to alcohol. She said, "It is time we all wake up to the fact that alcohol is a drug and it is one of the most powerful and abused drugs in our country today."




This paper is designed to be used by legislators, policymakers, alcohol enforcement agencies, police, citizen groups, and concerned citizens who wish to learn more about the costs, benefits, and techniques of various methods of enforcing the 21-year-old drinking age law. Much more needs to be learned in this area, but the large majority of American cities and states are not yet taking full advantage of what is already known to help protect young people from the harmful consequences of underage drinking.


What Are the Benefits of Enforcing the 21-year-old drinking age?

Alcohol is the #2 preventable cause of death in the U.S. after tobacco. Alcohol kills an estimated 100,000 Americans each year through drunk driving fatalities, suicides, homicides, cirrhosis, hepatitis, pancreatitis, falls, fires, drownings, and cancers of the liver, mouth, breast, stomach, and esophagus. Many of these alcohol-related deaths are occurring to young people, with the death rate peaking between ages 20 and 24 from accidents, suicides, and homicides. The average victim loses 26 years of life for a total of 2.7 million years of life lost each year (James Shultz, Univ Miami, Cox News 4/7/90).

The nationwide passage of 21-year-old drinking age laws in the mid-1980s is credited with saving roughly 1,000 teenage lives a year. Thus, even though the drinking age laws have not been well enforced, they have already had a significant beneficial effect. Still, in 1990, 3,361 Americans between the ages of 16 and 20 died due to alcohol-related auto-crashes (NHTSA, 1991).

The non-fatal consequences of drinking may be almost as tragic as the fatal ones. Huge numbers of non-fatal auto crashes and injuries, beatings, birth defects, rapes, verbal abuse, child abuse, job loss, impaired school performance, school dropouts, unwanted pregnancies, venereal disease, broken families, and more can be attributed to alcohol. Many crimes are committed under the influence of alcohol. In addition, alcohol is a major gateway drug, increasing the chance the user will begin using tobacco and/or illicit drugs.

An incredible 38% of Americans have some family history of the alcoholism, although many young people may not know their family history in this area. In addition to this, many people developing alcoholism have no family history of it.

A recent study has shown that the beneficial effect of raising the legal drinking age decreases not only auto fatalities, but also deaths of pedestrians, unintentional fatal injuries not involving motor vehicles, and suicide. An initiation effect on homicides has also been identified. The beneficial impact of the higher drinking age has also had a measurable effect decreasing the death rate of young adults ages 21 to 24 (Amer J Public Health 82:112-5, '92)

Despite all of this evidence, in 1991, heavy drinking by high school seniors was still at 29.8% in the two weeks before the survey. A random polling of 58,000 U.S. college students, the largest ever, found 41% reported binging in any two week period (Presley, 1993). Alcohol consumption by minors has fallen off only 15 percent since 1982. Alcohol is still, by far, the most widely abused drug in America, still taking a heavy toll on youth.

Too often, we do not give children and adolescents sound reasons for delaying the onset of drinking at least until the age of 21. Yet, there is a large and growing body of research showing that delaying the onset of drinking has a major beneficial effect, lowering the later levels of adult alcohol abuse and alcoholism, in addition to reducing the many immediate harmful consequences in the teenage years.

Early Onset of Drinking Increases Alcohol Abuse & Alcoholism

At least 37 studies covering 174,000 individuals have looked at the issue of whether early drinking increases the risk of heavy drinking, alcohol-related problems and/or alcoholism. Every study has found that starting drinking at an earlier age increases the likelihood of heavier drinking later in life. Twenty-two of these studies looked for and found a significant link between an early onset of drinking and the level of drinking problems and/or alcoholism later in life (Radecki, 1993).

At any one point in time, some 8% of adult Americans are suffering from alcoholism. An estimated 40% of alcohol drinkers will have problems due to alcohol serious enough to be diagnosed as mild alcoholism at some point during their lives (Chou, 1992).

Chou's study of 29,950 American adults found that the risk of later alcoholism decreases rapidly every year a person postpones beginning drinking until age 21. It does continue to decrease thereafter, but at a slower rate.

Another study of 1,934 young adults in the state of New York found that those who started drinking as high school seniors or in early college had four times as many drinking problems as those who started after the legal drinking age. Those who started at age 16 or earlier had 16 times as many alcohol-related problems! (Barnes, 1992)

A prospective study of 11,871 American adults found that those who experienced their first intoxication before age 18 were much more likely to develop alcohol problems during the study's one year of follow-up period (Crum, 1992).

The age of onset effect may in part be a biological one. The developing nervous system may be more prone to the addictive conditioning effect of various drugs. The same effect has been noted with tobacco. Young people, who start earlier, smoke more as adults and have a harder time stopping (Taioli, 1991).


Teaching Abstinence Until Age 21 Reduces Alcohol Abuse

We must give young people logical reasons for delaying the onset of drinking. BACCHUS, the most popular college-based program, present on 600 campuses across the U.S., carefully avoids advocating abstinence. They report that they are afraid of alienating the students. Even many grade school and high school programs fail to give any reason for abstaining until age 21 other than that it is against the law. Many students think that the important issue is "don't drink and drive" without realizing that their goal needs to be "don't drink." .

In our large college student survey, only 37% supported the 21-year-old drinking age law although more than 90% did favor some age limit. Many young students who begin drinking even forget their initial lesson learned in school of at least not drinking and driving. In a recent study an incredible 36% of 40,426 Maryland high school seniors reported driving within one hour of consuming one to four alcoholic drinks within the past year. A total of 19% reported driving after five or more drinks (Maryland DOE, 1992).

Many adults, even some high school and college alcohol and substance abuse counselors, fear that encouraging abstinence and compliance with the 21-year-old drinking age law will only drive young people to reject concerns about about alcohol abuse and indulge more heavily in the "forbidden fruit." Fortunately, research shows that this is, at least on the average, not the case.

Barnes (1986) found in a study of 27,335 high school students that parental approval of drinking and and age of first intoxication were both linked to heavy, problem drinking. Strong parental disapproval was more strongly linked than mild parental disapproval to fewer teens drinking (59% vs 95%). School grades and conduct were strongly inversely linked to being a drinker. Barnes(1990) has also shown that when teens of non-drinking parents do drink, they are least likely to be heavy drinkers and most likely to be very light drinkers, again disproving the "forbidden fruit" theory. To date, at least 14 studies have looked at the impact of parental disapproval on underage drinking and every one has found disapproval linked to less drinking and fewer problems (Radecki, 1993a).

While no study has looked at the impact of authoritarian vs. authoritative messages on underage drinking, research in family psychology shows that gentle, but firm discipline combined with sensible reasoning (the authoritative approach) is more successful than an authoritarian ("Do it because I say so") or a permissive approach.

The findings of our 29-campus Midwest study shows enforcement can build respect for the law. College students, who lived in towns where they perceived that the 21-year-old drinking age law was more effectively enforced, were more likely to support the drinking age law than students going to school in towns where they reported that it was very easy to purchase alcohol in local bars even without a false ID (Radecki, 1991).

Educational efforts are a very important component in achieving compliance with the 21-year-old drinking age law. Many parents, citizen groups, schools, and churches are doing wonderful things to help decrease underage drinking. Colleges are developing drug-free dorms, non-alcoholic parties and activities, and non-alcoholic nightclubs. More colleges are banning alcohol from campus. Taverns on campus are disappearing. Non-drinking alternatives are being developed and encouraged.

Encouraging adherence to the 21-year-old drinking age law is an important health message. Combining reasonable enforcement of the drinking law with that health message is an essential part of the effort. Without some reasonable degree of enforcement, we give young people the message that we don't mean what we say.


How Readily Do Merchants Sell Alcohol to Minors?

Merchants sell alcohol to minors in most of the U.S. much more readily than many people realize. Indeed, underage drinkers will often know where it go and how to get it. Virtually 100% of minors, if they have not purchased alcohol themselves, they know another minor who has.

The Inspector General's report in September, 1991, commissioned by the Surgeon General, noted that in 44 states minors can sell and serve alcohol, in 42 states they are allowed into drinking establishments, and that there is a low priority given to the youth alcohol enforcement issue by most state and local enforcement bodies. The report notes that vendors are rarely fined or have their licenses suspended.

The Inspector General encouraged states to correct the loopholes in drinking laws. These include 1) banning youth from entering bars, taverns, and cocktail lounges, 2) encouraging and improving dram shop liability laws, 3) allowing enforcement agents to take action against minors who drink in private residences, 4) allowing sting operations, and 5) permitting driver's license suspension.

Our 1991 survey of 2512 college students 18- to 20-years-old on 29 Midwest campuses in 17 different states found that 59% of the underage drinkers reported buying their own alcohol at least some of the time. In 13 of the 29 cities studied, students reported great ease in purchasing alcohol even without a false ID, stating that usually their IDs weren't checked or that when they were checked at the door, they were allowed in as underage, but managed to drink. In no city did students report a large amount of difficulty purchasing alcohol, although in several a false ID was necessary to do this. Interestingly, many students stated that IDs, when required, were not looked at very closely (Radecki, 1991).

In 1992, we did an extensive alcohol purchase study, visiting 55 cities in 28 states. In each city, 19-year-olds (40 cities) or 21-year-olds (15 cities) who looked underage were used to attempt to purchase alcohol. In 1960 purchase attempts, 53% of merchants in taverns, supermarkets, restaurants, and carryouts sold alcohol to the minors without requiring proof of age.

The easiest city for minors to purchase alcohol was a tie between Brooklyn and New Orleans. In Brooklyn 99% of merchants sold to a 19-year-old. We had to visit 102 establishments before we found one merchant who was obeying the law. However, in New Orleans, we had to use 17-year-old youths since the Louisiana law has an unusual twist: In order to comply with the federal law, Louisiana made it illegal for minors under the age of 21 to buy alcohol, but merchants can still sell it to minors as soon as they turn 18. All but one out of 37 taverns and carryouts sold to the high school students without asking a single question.Even a tavern on the grounds of a local university sold to the youths.

Our survey of local New Orleans high school and college students found 82% of the college students and even 57% of the 14- to 15-year-old high school students reported have purchased their own alcohol. The college students stated it was very rare that they were ever turned down and false IDs were almost never necessary. Many of the younger high school students did report using false IDs but even they reported frequently being served without the ID being requested.

In all our survey studies, New York City college students had the highest percentage of alcohol drinkers and self-purchasers of alcohol in our survey. Fully 91% of the students who had drank even once in the past year had purchased alcohol in the past year. As expected, there was a clear connection between how easy the students said it was to purchase alcohol and our findings on the actual purchase studies.

In our national alcohol purchase study, only four city had sales to minors rates of under 20%: San Diego 16%, Decatur, IL 14%, Carlsbad 9%, and Tulsa 3%. Numerous other cities had extremely high rates of sales to minors, e.g. Queens, NY 92%, Manhattan 87%, Champaign, IL 80%, Urbana, IL 76%, Schenectady, NY 72%, Charleston, IL 70%, Chicago 69%, Minneapolis 67%, Milwaukee 66%, Los Angeles 55%. Although Washington, D.C. continued to be very high, i.e. 65%, it was much improved from the 97% measured by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in December, 1990. The improvement is probably the result of a limited number of compliance checks by the local alcohol beverage commission after the Insurance Institute study.(Full results in Appendix)

In our national college student survey, underage students going to bars reported that they were not carded 29% of the time, carded but allowed in as underage and drank alcohol 20% of the time and used borrowed or altered IDs 35% of the time. They reported being unable to drink only 16% of the time they went to a bar (turned away at the door or allowed in but did not drink). Very rarely were they ever arrested for trying. Fully 47% of the underage students reported drinking in bars. Barroom drinking was strongly associated with heavy or binge drinking. When bars let the minors in after the minors showed their true IDs at the door, the students reported being able to get around the system and drink 85% of the time (Radecki, 1991). The survey found that half of false IDs being used by students were manufactured or altered and half were valid IDs borrowed from others.

Liquor Law Enforcement

Enforcement of the drinking age law falls into two parts. The first is enforcement directed toward alcohol merchants to assure that they are obeying the liquor licensing law and the second is enforcement directed toward the minors themselves. A fair number of minors have actually been arrested for underage drinking or possession although usually not at bars or while attempting to purchase. In the above college campus survey, 6% of the drinkers had been arrested at least once on an alcohol-related charge, usually possession, with the most typical consequence a $250 fine. However, for the three cities in which adequate data was available for analysis, students were arrested 100 times more often for attempting to purchase or for possessing the alcohol purchased than were the merchants for selling it to them.

This paper will first focus on enforcement directed toward alcohol merchants. This enforcement varies widely from state to state. In some states the enforcement is a local police responsibility, in some states a shared local/state responsibility and in a few states an entirely state responsibility. Almost everyone agrees that the prohibition of sales to minors issue is the most important responsibility of the alcohol merchant. The other important issue is service to intoxicated patrons.


Stopping Sales to Minors

Almost all police departments make some efforts to deter sales to minors. The large majority, however, have used inefficient and less effective enforcement techniques, resulting in the results decried by the Surgeon General and found in our national survey.

These techniques include:

1) uniformed police walking through taverns and liquor establishments. This is probably the most common technique. This technique does not seem to have much impact on merchant behavior when police aren't there.

2) stake outs where police sit outside and wait until they see someone who looks underage and who has made a purchase. Police then stop the person to see if he is indeed underage and, if so, go back and charge the clerk that sold the alcohol and sometimes the merchant. This technique is very time consuming and inconvenient, and therefore is rarely done with a high enough frequency to have an adequate impact.

3) undercover police in the tavern. This technique is also quite time consuming. It can be effective and has been the only technique that has been proven successful at discouraging taverns from serving intoxicated patrons. Its benefit was far superior to server training (McKnight, 1991), but its cost causes it to be rarely used. McKnight did show it cost-effective when looking at the number of auto crashes prevented.

4) compliance checks or "sting" operations. Compliance checks are by far the most successful and efficient method of encouraging merchants not to sell alcohol to minors. Unfortunately, most police departments and state alcohol beverage control commissions do not use this method. This is the technique we will explain in great detail.