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Effectiveness: Proven for reducing sales to underage people 3 Star Proven for reducing sales to underage people Cost: $$
Use: Unknown
Time: Short

In all 50 States alcohol venders must verify the age of young customers to be sure they are at least 21. However, several studies suggest young people can obtain alcohol without much difficulty. Across  studies, young buyers successfully purchased alcohol in 44% to 97% of attempts without showing identification (Goodwin et al., 2005, Strategy A3). To reduce the likelihood that alcohol vendors sell alcohol to underage people, LEOs can conduct frequent compliance checks. In a compliance check “sting,” LEOs watch as underage people attempt to buy 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-premise 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 (Williams & Ribisl, 2012). Twelve percent of orders were rejected due to age verification at order placement or during fulfilment, and an additional 16% were rejected due to age verification at delivery.

An effective compliance check program works primarily through deterrence. The goal is to increase perception among vendors they will be caught if they sell alcohol to underage people. To maximize deterrence, compliance checks should be:

  • Conducted frequently and on an unscheduled basis. Vendors should know compliance checks are taking place, but should not know exactly when.
  • 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, available at

Use: Twenty-two States and the District of Columbia prohibit all alcohol purchase by underage youth. Another 24 States prohibit purchase other than for law enforcement purposes such as merchant compliance checks (APIS, 2018a). 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 all local LEAs reported conducting compliance checks, and only 55% of these agencies reported checking all establishments that sold alcohol (Erickson et al., 2014). Less than 1 in 4 of these agencies conducted checks more than twice a year. Seventy-six percent of State agencies reported conducting compliance checks; 59% of these reported checks at all establishments. Twenty-one percent of State agencies conducted checks more than twice a year.

Effectiveness: Several studies document that well-publicized and vigorous compliance checks reduce alcohol sales to youth; for example, a review of eight 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 (2000-2013) 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%, respectively) (Scherer et al., 2018).

Costs: 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 procedures.

Other issues:

  • Penalties for violations: To increase the likelihood that penalties will be quickly and consistently enforced, Goodwin et al. (2005, Strategy A3) 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, Strategy A3).