Policy makers, law enforcement officials, researchers, and community advocates need to have a clear understanding of the importance of alcohol beverage control agencies to public health efforts to prevent alcohol-related problems. There is a need for a more in-depth understanding of each State’s ABC system in the areas of licensing, enforcement, and adjudication of alcohol laws in order to develop strategies to more effectively impact alcohol policies and the enforcement of these policies to prevent alcohol-related problems. By understanding how these processes work, policy makers and public health professionals can find opportunities throughout the entire spectrum (licensing, enforcement and adjudication) in which they may influence the decisions regarding how alcohol is sold and consumed in their communities. Although many might assume that these functions are similar across States, this report documents that each State has developed a unique system for licensing, enforcement and adjudication that is often difficult to understand without a thorough examination of State policies and additional research. Our research highlights the following findings:

  1. There are three main licensing systems: exclusive State licensing, dual licensing, and exclusive local licensing with minimum State standards. Each type of licensing may provide opportunities for community input even if licenses are not issued at the local level.

  2. Resources for enforcing alcohol control laws at the State and local level appear to be insufficient to ensure compliance among alcohol retailers, and these resources are reported to be steadily shrinking.

  3. State structures for adjudicating alcohol law violations through administrative processes are complex, resulting in procedures that fail to meet the basic requirements for creating effective deterrence – swift and certain punishment and sufficiently severe penalties.

Based on these findings, we offer the following recommendations to improve the U.S. alcohol beverage control system with the overall goal of reducing alcohol-related problems:

  1. Develop effective partnerships between State ABC agencies and local governments and law enforcement agencies. This should include encouraging local input into State licensing decisions, permitting independent authority at the local level to enhance (but not loosen) minimum State restrictions, and establishing procedures for joint law enforcement initiatives.

  2. Provide increased resources for State and local law enforcement efforts to ensure compliance with alcohol laws.

  3. Establish clear and consistent administrative penalty guidelines for violations of alcohol laws, and ensure that the penalties are imposed swiftly and consistently. Establish penalties that become increasingly severe for repeat offenders, which can lead to suspensions or revocations commensurate with violation patterns and behaviors.

  4. Encourage more active citizen participation in the licensing and adjudication processes. This can include a “court watch” for administrative hearings for alcohol law violations that is similar to court monitoring efforts begun by Mothers Against Drunk Driving to ensure that impaired drivers receive just penalties for their crimes.

  5. Encourage private and public funding agencies and research organizations to support research to evaluate all aspects of alcohol beverage control systems. In particular, assist States and localities with evaluation and analysis of their enforcement efforts to document the effectiveness of alcohol enforcement strategies in reducing alcohol-related problems.

  6. Encourage States to institute better data collection and reporting systems, especially in the cases of enforcement actions and case dispositions.

Given that at least 85,000 people die each year in the United States from alcohol-related causes (Mokdad, et al., 2004), and that a significant percentage of these deaths are attributable to alcohol-related traffic crashes, we must examine new strategies to prevent these tragic deaths and injuries. This report only begins to review the various opportunities and challenges that alcohol beverage control agencies can play in efforts to protect the public’s health and safety. As stated above, a great deal of research is needed to evaluate the effectiveness of current alcohol enforcement resources and strategies in relation to the penalties imposed on retailers for all types of violations. It is our hope that this report will serve as a starting point for additional research and discussions in this area.