Alcohol consumption by people under the age of 21 is an issue of national concern and has serious social and economic impacts on our communities. According to the 2011 Youth Risk Behavior Survey, although less than one in 20 Alaskan youth report binge drinking (five or more drinks within a few hours) in the past month, more than one quarter of youth in public high schools in Alaska report drinking alcohol in the past month, and nearly two-thirds report drinking alcohol in their lifetime. Most indicators of underage alcohol consumption in Alaska have been declining gradually over the past 10 years and are similar to or below national averages. Reductions in youth alcohol consumption are partially attributable to laws, policies, and programs that are critical to the reduction of the damaging consequences associated with underage drinking.
As part of the strategy to reduce sales of alcohol to underage persons, the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board (ABC Board) utilizes ABC enforcement officers and youthful-looking underage persons to conduct compliance checks at retail establishments. During a compliance check at a selected establishment, an underage buyer attempts to purchase alcohol. If a licensee, agent, or employee has a question about the age of the buyer, they are required to check the buyer's identification. (In Anchorage, retail outlets are required by ordinance to check the identification of all buyers.) Compliance checks have been conducted in Alaska for well over a decade, and the ABC Board has set a 95 percent compliance goal for Alaska licensees in refusing sales to underage persons. This article looks at the reasons for compliance checks, the compliance check program in Alaska, state compliance check goals and results, and the multi-pronged effort required to reduce alcohol access to underage persons.
Reasons for Compliance Checks
In 2000, researchers from the Alcohol Epidemiology Program at the University of Minnesota found that in compliance checks across the country youthful-appearing buyers were able to purchase alcohol without any questions at least 50 percent of the time. More recent published research shows that rates of compliance have improved: findings indicated a 61 percent compliance rate in 2003 for retailers in Northern California and a 65 percent compliance rate for retailers in Chicago in 2008. In looking at four geographic areas of the U.S., overall compliance rates of 74 percent were reported in 2006. In Alaska the most recent compliance rate was 89 percent in FY 2013.
Effective compliance checks and enforcement of laws are associated with reductions in the purchase and use of alcohol and in underage access to alcohol. Compliance checks conducted by enforcement agents and resulting in sanctions for non-compliance are effective because they promote regular identification checks by licensees and deter sales of alcohol to underage persons. Compliance checks are a recommended strategy in conjunction with responsible beverage service training and merchant education programs. A variety of studies have found that compliance checks and enforcement of laws reduce the likelihood that minors will be able to purchase age-restricted products from retailers. Controlled studies have also shown that effective enforcement of laws reduced use of age-restricted products even more than merchant education programs. (Merchant education programs are aimed at liquor retailers and include information on the law and penalties for selling alcohol to underage persons, assistance in developing responsible management policies, training on how to recognize fake IDs, and other materials.)
Illegal sales of alcohol to underage persons can be reduced, but require a community-wide effort. Communities and law enforcement need reliable data in order to do the most effective prevention. Data from compliance checks can:
- Identify who is selling to underage persons and how often
- Raise community awareness and build support for reducing sales to underage persons
- Inform liquor licensees that they are being monitored by the community
- Assist law enforcement in targeting problem retailers
- Help monitor the impact of prevention strategies
Compliance Check Program in Alaska
The ABC Board has designated eight regions for compliance check selection and reporting: (1) the Municipality of Anchorage, (2) Fairbanks North Star Borough, (3) City and Borough of Juneau, (4) Southeast Alaska, (5) Matanuska-Susitna Borough, (6) Kenai Peninsula Borough, (7) on-road rural areas, and (8) off-road rural areas. Licensed establishments subject to compliance checks are recorded in a database, and premises within the designated regions are selected for checking. As individual premises are checked, they are excluded from further checks for that fiscal year as long as they are in compliance. Those premises not checked in a given year will be selected the following year.
During a compliance check at a selected establishment, an underage buyer attempts to purchase alcohol without presenting age verification (ID). The ABC enforcement officer accompanying the underage buyer remains in the background. If the buyer's identification is requested, the buyer produces his or her own identification indicating the correct age of the buyer. If the outlet sells alcohol to the buyer, whether or not identification was requested, the outlet is considered noncompliant. If the outlet refuses to sell to the buyer, it is considered in compliance.
When a licensee or one of their employees fails a compliance check, the licensee is issued an informal notice of violation which must be responded to within ten days. If an employee fails a compliance check or otherwise sells alcohol to an underage person, the employee is given a criminal summons or citation. The first conviction for this misdemeanor carries a maximum fine of $10,000 and up to one year in jail, though judges commonly impose a $500 fine and suspend the jail sentence. Employees who sell alcohol to underage persons are not likely to spend time in jail, unless they repeat the offense within a year. If a licensee fails a compliance check or otherwise sells alcohol to an underage person, the licensee is also given a summons or citation. If convicted, the licensee faces the sanctions described above, and must also appear before the ABC Board where an administrative sanction may be imposed. The ABC Board typically fines licensees $500 and imposes a 45-day suspension of their liquor license. Since the ABC Board frequently suspends 38 days of the license suspension, licensees who sell alcohol to underage persons typically face a seven-day suspension of their liquor license, if they remain free of violations for one full year.
Funding of alcohol enforcement programs by the ABC Board, including compliance checks, is severely limited. Until recently, Alaska, along with other states, had been receiving Enforcement of Underage Drinking Laws (EUDL) block grant funding through the Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention (OJJDP) for programs to help prevent underage drinking. Up until December 31, 2012 the grant provided $100,000 annually which covered the salary and benefits of one ABC investigator. The EUDL grant funding was terminated across the nation at the end of 2012. The Alaska ABC Board received supplemental funds from the Alaska State Legislature to carry the program through June 30, 2013. In April 2013 the legislature approved for one fiscal year (July 1, 2013-June 30, 2014) the $100,000 previously funded by the EUDL grant.
Compliance Check Goals and Results
From the total number of licensed establishments in the state that are subject to compliance checks, the ABC Board sets goals for the percentage of checks to be conducted. There are approximately 1,500 out of 1,800 total licensees who are subject to compliance checks-common carriers and remote lodges are not typically checked. These percentage goals are determined each fiscal year and are based on region. The highest compliance check goals are for the more densely populated and easily accessible areas. For example, the ABC Board has set a goal of conducting compliance checks in 75 percent of the establishments in the Municipality of Anchorage, while setting a much lower goal of 25 percent for rural communities off the road system.
Compliance check goals for the number of checks conducted were met in the past three fiscal years (FY 2011-2013), but were not met in the two years before that (FY 2009-2010). The number of compliance checks conducted in FY 2011 increased by 104 over FY 2010. There were 700 compliance checks in FY 2010, 804 in FY 2011, 826 in FY 2012, and 828 in FY 2013. For the Municipality of Anchorage, the City and Borough of Juneau, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and rural communities off the road system, compliance check goals were met in four out of five years. Compliance check goals were met in all eight regions in the last three years of the FY 2009-2013 period. (See Table 1.)
Compliance check results for refusal to sell alcohol to underage persons for FY 2009-2013 show little variability and few discernible trends over time or by region. One trend can be seen in the Municipality of Anchorage and rural communities on the road system, where rates of compliance have increased each year for the past three consecutive years from FY 2009 to 2013 (see Figure 1).
The statewide average rate of compliance for refusal to sell alcohol to underage persons during a compliance check ranged from a low of 83 percent of licensees compliant in FY 2010 to a high of 89 percent in FY 2013. The lowest rate of compliance for individual regions was for rural communities off the road system with 67 percent compliance in FY 2011. The highest rate of compliance was for rural communities on the road system at 100 percent in FY 2009, when seven checks were conducted, followed by a 96 percent compliance rate for Kenai Peninsula Borough in FY 2010. Only the rural communities on the road system (in FY 2009 and FY 2013) and Kenai Peninsula Borough (in FY 2010) have ever attained the goal of 95 percent compliance or more in the past five years. All of the regions, excluding Southeast Alaska and rural communities off the road system, have experienced compliance rates above 90 percent at least once in the past five years. Three regions have never had compliance rates lower than 80 percent in the past five years (Fairbanks North Star Borough, Kenai Peninsula Borough, and Southeast Alaska).
Reducing Underage Drinking in Alaska
Of all states, Alaska has the lowest percentage (3.1%) of past-month drinkers aged 12 to 20 who reported purchasing their own alcohol according to the 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health. However, compliance check efforts should not be reduced based on this statistic; the low percentage is partially attributable to compliance checks. Compliance checks made regularly over a sustained period are associated with the highest compliance rates. Currently, there is a lack of sufficient resources to conduct compliance checks at each retail outlet twice per year-a situation that is not unique to Alaska. Lack of alcohol enforcement agents for compliance checks nationwide is a direct result of lack of resources, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Through other initiatives and funding, Alaska has established a solid foundation of substance use data that will serve to set in motion efforts to reduce access to alcohol by underage persons, underage drinking, and its consequences. Beginning in 2006, the Alaska Division of Behavioral Health received federal funding from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to compile an epidemiological profile related to all substance use consumption and consequences data for Alaska. As a result, Alaska was awarded a Strategic Prevention Framework State Incentive Grant (SPF SIG) in FY 2010. Using the Strategic Prevention Framework model of developing a data driven process for identifying the highest priority issue(s) related to statewide substance use/abuse, two priorities were identified: (1) youth alcohol use; and (2) adult heavy and binge drinking. Community grantees are currently conducting community-level research and evaluation on youth alcohol use.
Alaska convened the Alaska Committee to Prevent Underage Drinking (ACPUD) in 2007, and other states have taken similar actions. This committee continues to move underage drinking issues forward through Alaska's Strategies to Prevent Underage Drinking-a state plan updated in 2012 which focuses on state and community-level interventions and strategies to prevent underage drinking. A critical data source comes from Alaska's participation in the federal STOP Act project. The STOP Act State Survey collects information from all states on a variety of issues including whether or not a state alcohol agency conducts underage compliance checks/decoy operations to determine if alcohol retailers are complying with laws prohibiting sales to underage persons. The STOP Act State Survey was first conducted in 2010, and is now carried out each year by all 50 states, and used as the foundation for the annual Report to Congress on the Prevention and Reduction of Underage Drinking. The 2013 STOP Act Survey was recently completed for the 2013 Report to Congress. The 2012 Report to Congress can be accessed at http://store.samhsa.gov/product/Report-to-Congress-on-the-Prevention-and-Reduction-of-Underage-Drinking-2012/PEP12-RTCUAD. (The report contains a "State Profile and Underage Drinking Facts" section for each state and a copy of State Survey Responses.)
Compliance checks are an important tool for reducing retail alcohol access to underage persons, but reducing underage persons' access to alcohol requires a multi-pronged response. A multi-pronged response includes prevention, education, and treatment, as well as efforts to change marketing practices, and launch media campaigns that publicize the problem and appropriate responses to it. A comprehensive strategy is necessary to reduce the demand for alcoholic beverages by underage persons. Effectively reducing access to alcohol and underage drinking requires a coordinated effort involving evidence-based practices. These practices would focus uniquely on underage youth, underage adults (aged 18-20), near peers (aged 21-25), parents and family members aged 21 and older, and other adults, because adults provide alcohol to underage persons willingly, as well as without their knowledge (i.e., youth taking alcohol from their parents).
Education efforts would involve communicating the consequences of drinking alcohol (health and safety, school-related, legal, and economic consequences, among others). This strategy would also provide information on existing statutes designed to reduce access to alcohol by underage persons. Greater awareness of the penalties for violating statutes could help to change norms, attitudes, and beliefs of adults who provide alcohol to underage persons. These efforts would also involve education of youth and the enforcement of minor consuming statutes, along with reasonable penalties designed to deter youth from possessing and using alcohol. While licensed retail outlets that sell alcohol are part of the underage drinking problem in Alaska, the solution requires allocating sufficient resources to a comprehensive and coordinated multi-pronged approach.
Marny Rivera is an associate professor in the Justice Center. Shirley Coté is the director of the Alaska Alcoholic Beverage Control Board.