Underage drinking deterrents have decreased across law enforcement, study says

The number of law enforcement agencies that use alcohol-related enforcement strategies has decreased during the past 10 years, according to a new study from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health (SPH).

Although alcohol consumption can pose various societal risks, the study found that enforcement of underage drinking deterrent techniques decreased from 2010 to 2019.

Published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, researchers reviewed the amount of alcohol-related law enforcement strategies in three areas — underage drinking, impaired driving and sales to obviously intoxicated persons. 

"Use of all three types of underage drinking enforcement efforts that we examined significantly decreased," SPH researcher and lead author Kathleen Lenk said in a statement. "Enforcement aimed at underage drinkers themselves, versus the alcohol outlets and adults who supply alcohol, were the most commonly used enforcement strategies... This is a common enforcement approach, but studies demonstrate it is more effective to focus on reducing access to alcohol rather than punishing underage persons."

The research found decreased enforcement of underage drinking laws in three key areas:

  •  In 2010, 41.9% of agencies used compliance checks, in which law enforcement supervise undercover youth who attempt to purchase alcohol. In 2019, only 36.4% of agencies used this strategy
  • Enforcement of laws prohibiting adults from providing alcohol to underage persons decreased from 48.5% to 33.9%
  •  Enforcement of underage possession and/or consumption of alcohol dropped from 84.7% to 66.5%

The researchers also found less severe decreases in the use of sobriety checkpoints, and the enforcement of laws prohibiting the sale of alcohol to obviously intoxicated persons, which fell from 24.8% to 23.8%.

However, the study found an increase in two types of impaired driving enforcement: the percentage of agencies using saturation patrols (from 69.1% to 75.5%), and open container enforcement (from 45.6% to 57.9%).