Alcohol Vendor Compliance Checks
In all 50 States alcohol venders are required to verify the age of young customers to be sure they are at least 21 years old. Several past studies suggest young people could obtain alcohol without much difficulty. Across various studies, young buyers successfully purchased alcohol in 44% to 97% of attempts without showing identification (Goodwin et al., 2005). To reduce the likelihood that alcohol vendors sell alcohol to underage people, law enforcement officers can conduct frequent compliance checks.
In a compliance check or “sting,” law enforcement officers watch as underage people attempt to purchase alcohol and cite the server or vendor for an MLDA-21 violation if a sale is made. Vendors can include on premise retailers (bars and restaurants) or off-premises outlets (convenience stores or liquor stores). Currently, online sales of alcohol are not well regulated, and vendors’ age verification practices may not be stringent. In a 2011 study in North Carolina, 45% of online alcohol orders placed by underage students were delivered; 23% of these orders did not require age verification. Even when age verification procedures were used, they often failed to identify the purchaser as a minor (Williams & Ribisl, 2012).
An effective compliance check program works primarily through deterrence. The goal is to increase the perception among vendors they will be caught if they sell alcohol to underage people. To maximize deterrence, compliance checks should be:
- Conducted frequently and be unpredictable. Vendors should know that compliance checks are taking place, but should not know exactly when they will occur.
- Conducted at all vendors, not just a sample of vendors in the community. One study showed the benefits of compliance checks did not generalize to vendors who were not checked (Wagenaar et al., 2005).
- Well-publicized among vendors and the community at large. This will discourage young people from trying to obtain alcohol, and encourage vendors to put policies and procedures in place that prevent the sale of alcohol to underage customers.
- Sustained over time. The effects of compliance checks decay over a few months, so an ongoing program is needed to maintain deterrence (Wagenaar et al., 2005).
A useful resource on how to conduct compliance checks is the Alcohol Epidemiology Program’s Alcohol Compliance Checks: A Procedures Manual for Enforcing Alcohol Age-of-Sale Laws (AEP, 2013).
As of January 2022 there were 45 States and the District of Columbia that prohibit minors from purchasing or attempting to purchase alcohol (APIS, 2022). Twenty-five States allow people under age 21 to purchase alcohol for law enforcement purposes such as merchant compliance checks. Although many jurisdictions conduct compliance checks of alcohol retailers at least occasionally, few jurisdictions do so frequently or regularly. One national survey conducted in 2010-2011 found that only 35% of local law enforcement agencies and 67% of State agencies (e.g., alcohol beverage control) reported conducting compliance checks (Erickson et al., 2014). Among agencies that did conduct checks, less than 10% reported checking all alcohol establishments at least 3 or 4 times a year.
Several studies document that well-publicized and vigorous compliance checks reduce alcohol sales to youth. For example, a review of 8 high-quality studies found that compliance checks reduced sales to underage people by an average of 42% (Elder et al., 2007). The effect of compliance checks on motor vehicle crashes has not been studied. In San Diego County, annual DUI citation data (2000 to 2013) were analyzed and the results suggested that retail beverage service laws (which prevent alcohol sales and service to minors including compliance checks) and social host laws (which prohibit hosting underage drinking) contributed to lower underage DUI rates (-25% and -32.1%) (Scherer et al., 2018).
Compliance checks require time from law enforcement. These costs can be supported, in part, through alcohol license fees or fines collected from non-compliant vendors.
Time to implement:
Compliance checks can be implemented within 3 months if officers are trained in proper compliance check procedures. Training typically takes less than a week.
Penalties for violations: To increase the likelihood that penalties will be quickly and consistently enforced, Goodwin et al. (2005) recommend that all penalties for violations should be administrative in nature. Also, the penalties must be substantial enough to deter alcohol vendors from selling to underage people. Some States employ graduated penalties for vendors who fail compliance checks, where both fines and suspension periods increase with each violation (Goodwin et al., 2005).