Minimum Age of Alcohol Purchase, Sale, and Server Laws

Description

Minimum age of alcohol purchase, sale, and server laws are a suite of alcohol control policies that stipulate the minimum age for alcohol transactions. Minimum age of purchase laws prohibit minors from buying or attempting to buy alcoholic beverages. Minimum age of seller laws specify a minimum age for employees who sell alcoholic beverages in off-premises establishments (e.g., liquor, grocery, and convenience stores). Minimum age of server laws specify a minimum age for employees who serve or dispense alcoholic beverages in on-premises establishments (e.g., bars and restaurants).

Objective(s)

To limit commercial access of alcohol to underage youth

Typical Elements

  • Legal parameters vary by state:
    • Does the state establish the minimum age of alcohol purchase or attempt to purchase at age 21?
    • In the state, what is the minimum age of employees who sell alcoholic beverages in off-premises establishments?
    • In the state, what is the minimum age of employees who serve or dispense alcoholic beverages in on-premises establishments?
  • Some states allow exceptions to minimum age of transaction laws:
    • Does the state allow a person under age 21 to purchase alcoholic beverages as part of a law enforcement action such as compliance checks?
      • Note: Some states prohibit minors from purchasing alcohol only in connection with the minor making a false statement of his or her age or presenting a false identification (NIAAA, n.d.).
    • Does the state consider the purchasing and possessing of alcohol by minors as separate offenses?
    • Can on-premises servers or off-premises sellers be younger than age 21? If so, does the state place special conditions on those servers/sellers (e.g., types of alcohol served)?
    • Do special conditions apply to servers working in settings other than licensed bars or restaurants, such as racetracks, fairgrounds, or sports stadiums; banquet and catering facilities and services; private clubs; or university campuses (see, for example, Lenk et al., 2010)?
    • Does the state have existing laws that prohibit youth under age 21 from entering an establishment that serves or sells alcohol? From working in these establishments?
  • ​​Prevention champions and stakeholders identify persons or agencies responsible for administering the state’s existing minimum age of transaction laws.
  • Prevention champions and stakeholders collaborate with community leaders to pinpoint ways to strengthen existing state laws. For example, if the state does not already do so, consider enhancing current efforts to prevent minors from using false identification (ID) to purchase alcohol by:
    • Prohibiting the production, sale, distribution, possession, and use of false identification for attempted alcohol purchase
    • Implementing universal ID checks of all alcohol customers
    • Requiring two or more different ID cards at point of purchase
    • Issuing driver licenses and state identification cards that can be electronically scanned (NHTSA, 2001)
    • Allowing retailers to confiscate apparently false identification for law enforcement inspection (PIRE, 2011)
    • Using holographs and colors to make the manufacture of false identification difficult (Wagenaar, Lenk, & Toomey, 2005)
  • Different agencies are responsible for dispensing sanctions for violating underage drinking laws (Hafemeister & Jackson, 2004):
    • Criminal courts handle the majority of underage drinking cases for youth ages 18 to 20.
    • Juvenile courts handle most cases by individuals under age 18.
    • Juvenile diversion programs hold youth offenders accountable while keeping them out of the juvenile justice system.
  • Community leaders define and strengthen sanctions for violating minimum age of transaction laws.
    • For example, sanctions for youthful offenders can include (Hafemeister & Jackson, 2004):
      • Issuing citations to offenders at the time of apprehension, without requiring a court appearance
      • Imposing fines for civil or criminal violations that vary depending on whether they are first-time or subsequent offenses
      • Requiring offenders to complete a stipulated number of community service hours
      • Referring offenders for assessment and, if appropriate, mandating treatment for alcohol dependence or abuse
      • Suspending, revoking, or denying offenders’ driver licenses (see also Minor in Possession)
        • Note: In some states, these sanctions have prompted lawsuits that take issue with the removal of driving privileges for a non-driving-related offense.'
      • Requiring offenders to attend educational programs typically focused on consequences of alcohol-related behavior
      • Making public the names of minors arrested for alcohol violations
      • Notifying parents of youths’ violations
      • Notifying school personnel of youths’ offenses to provide greater monitoring
      • Providing incentives (e.g., an award or gift) for behavior change (typical of juvenile drug courts)
      • Incarcerating offenders for short-term sentences
        • Note: Incarceration is the most severe sanction and is used far less frequently than the others listed. Keep in mind that the purpose of these alcohol-related laws and sanctions are to promote health and prevent additional risk, not punish youth. As much as possible, and as appropriate, guard against criminalizing underage drinkers (see Hafemeister & Jackson, 2004, p. 14).
    • ​​Sanctions for vendors, retailers, and others can include:
      • Issuing citations (an administrative penalty) at the time of apprehension, without requiring court appearance
      • Imposing fines that vary depending on whether a first-time or subsequent offense
      • Suspending, revoking, or denying vendors’ liquor licenses
      • Making public the names of vendors/retailors caught selling/serving to minors
      • Requiring participation in a responsible beverage server training program
      • Penalizing manufacturers of false identification
  • As appropriate, prevention champions and stakeholders collaborate with community leaders and their staff to help draft revisions to and shepherd new legislation.
  • State-level support provided for policy revisions. Stakeholders can utilize media advocacy strategies, as needed, to increase awareness and gain support.
  • Stakeholders collaborate with community leaders to enhance enforcement activities related to minimum age of transaction laws, such as compliance checks or compliance surveys and responsible beverage server training.
  • Educational opportunities are provided for alcohol retailers and the general public about policy changes, compliance requirements, enforcement methods, and penalties as needed to enhance deterrence effects. Stakeholders should consider educational and marketing methods other than direct mail (Wolff et al., 2011).

Populations

  • Youth under age 21
  • Alcohol retailers

Outcomes

Evidence linking minimum age of alcohol purchase, sale, and server laws to underage drinking behaviors and their consequences is mixed:

  • Compared to geographical areas with three or fewer underage laws, those with four or more underage laws (e.g., laws requiring a minimum age for servers and sellers,  fake ID restrictions, laws on attempts to purchase or consume, laws requiring the posting of warning signs in alcohol outlets) have lower (Wechsler, Lee, Nelson, & Kuo, 2002a, 2002b):

    • Annual alcohol use rates among underage college students
    • Rates of drinking in the past 30 days among underage college students
    • Binge-drinking rates among underage college students
  • States with stricter laws regarding the use of false identification to purchase alcohol have lower rates of alcohol-related traffic fatalities involving underage drinkers (Fell et al, 2008).
  • States with laws establishing 21 as the minimum age to sell alcohol have lower alcohol use and binge-drinking rates among underage college students (Wechsler et al., 2002a).
  • The age of the server has not been associated with sales of alcohol to underage youth (Britt, Toomey, Dunsmuir, & Wagenaar, 2006; Freisthler, Gruenewald, Treno, & Lee, 2003).

Guidelines

Alcohol Control Policies and Practices at Professional Sports Stadiums

Effectiveness of Sanctions and Law Enforcement Practices Targeted at Underage Drinking Not Involving Operation of a Motor Vehicle

Policies to Reduce Commercial Access to Alcohol

Section 5. Seeking Enforcement of Existing Laws or Policies

Underage Drinking: Minimum Ages for Off-Premises Sellers

Underage Drinking: Minimum Ages for On-Premises Servers and Bartenders

Underage Drinking: Underage Purchase of Alcohol

Recognition

Reducing Alcohol-Impaired Driving: Maintaining Current Minimum Legal Drinking Age (MLDA) Laws

References

Britt, H., Toomey, T. L., Dunsmuir, W., & Wagenaar, A. C. (2006). Propensity for and correlates of alcohol sales to underage youth. Journal of Alcohol and Drug Education, 50(2), 25–42.

Fell, J. C., Fisher, D. A., Voas, R. B., Blackman, K., & Tippetts, A. S. (2008). The relationship of underage drinking laws to reductions in drinking drivers in fatal crashes in the United States. Accident Analysis & Prevention, 40(4), 1430–1440.

Freisthler, B., Gruenewald, P. J., Treno, A. J., & Lee, J. (2003). Evaluating alcohol access and the alcohol environment in neighborhood areas. Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, 27(3), 477–484.

Hafemeister, T. L., & Jackson, S. L. (2004). Effectiveness of sanctions and law enforcement practices targeted at underage drinking not involving operation of a motor vehicle. In R. J. Bonnie, & M. E. O’Connell (Eds.), Reducing underage drinking: A collective responsibility (pp. 490–540). Washington, DC: National Academies Press. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK37599/?report=printable#a200096f5rrr01190  

Lenk, K. M., Toomey, T. L., Erickson, D. J., Kilian, G. R., Nelson, T. F., & Fabian, L. E. A. (2010). Alcohol control policies and practices at professional sports stadiums. Public Health Reports, 125(5), 665–673. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2925002/  

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). Underage drinking: Underage purchase of alcohol. Alcohol Policy Information System (APIS) Web Site.  Retrieved from https://alcoholpolicy.niaaa.nih.gov/apis-policy-topics/underage-purchase-of-alcohol/43

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). (2001). Community how to guide on…public policy. Retrieved from http://www.nhtsa.gov/people/injury/alcohol/Community%20Guides%20HTML/Book6_PublicPolicy.html#App5  

Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation (PIRE). (2011). Regulatory strategies for prevention youth access to alcohol: Best practices. Washington, DC: US Department of Justice, Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Wagenaar, A. C., Lenk, K. M., & Toomey, T. L. (2005). Policies to reduce underage drinking: A review of the recent literature. Recent Developments in Alcoholism, 17, 275–297.

Wechsler, H., Lee, J. E., Nelson, T. F., & Kuo, M. (2002a). Underage college students’ drinking behavior, access to alcohol, and the influence of deterrence policies: Findings for the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study. Journal of American College Health, 50(5), 223–236.

Wechsler, H., Lee, J. E., Nelson, T. F., & Kuo, M. (2002b). Underage college students’ drinking behavior, access to alcohol, and the influence of deterrence policies: Findings for the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study: Erratum. Journal of American College Health, 51, 37.

Wolff, L., El Ayadi, A., Lyons, N., Herr-Zaya, K., Noll, D., Perfas, F., & Rots, G. (2011). Improving the alcohol retail environment to reduce youth access: A randomized community trial of a best practice intervention. Journal of Community Health, 36 (3), 357–366.