U.S. public supports restricted access to alcohol for minors

Dylan Thomas

A majority of Americans support alcohol policies that restrict minors’ access to alcohol, according to a new University study.

Survey respondents strongly supported punishment of adults who provide alcohol to minors, bar owner and server training and drinking restrictions on college campuses, among other policies.

Eilene Harwood, the study’s lead researcher, said the results indicate the public believes many of the country’s most common alcohol policies, such as high taxation of alcohol, really do work to keep alcohol out of minors’ hands.

“A lot of young people are really sensitive to the price, so if the price goes up, they often can’t buy it,” Harwood said.

She said the survey gives alcohol-policy advocates significant evidence of public support of alcohol control.

The phone survey of adults 18 and older was developed by the University’s Alcohol Epidemiology Program and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It was conducted by Mathematica Policy Research, a company specializing in policy surveys.

Participants were told prior to the survey that it was about policies aimed at underage drinking.

As a follow-up to a 1997 national survey, it was intended to evaluate the success of 12 foundation-funded coalitions around the country. The coalitions are working to change alcohol policies and promote the use of policies restricting minors’ access to alcohol instead of focusing strictly on law enforcement or “just say no” campaigns.

“This is a strategy that changes the environment,” Harwood said. “It’s a policy strategy that says that we can’t just say to the young person, ‘You’ve got to be the one to do something about this.’

“It’s a strategy that says we’re all responsible here.”

University police Sgt. Erik Swanson said University police officers spend a lot of time enforcing laws dealing with minor alcohol consumption. He said in an ideal environment where it would be more difficult for minors to access alcohol, police could spend much less time enforcing those laws.

“In terms of creating an environment where it’s not as easy to get alcohol, yeah, that would be wonderful. That would change so much,” Swanson said.

Harwood said survey results include information about people between the ages of 18 to 20, those who are legally considered adults but cannot legally drink alcohol.

“I think what’s interesting in a lot of this is many of those policies that are supported very highly are supported highly by young people, too,” Harwood said.

The survey includes some measure of the attitudes of college-age adults, as 18- to 24-year-olds were singled out in the survey. People from that age group were slightly less supportive of policies concerning drinking on the street or at college sports games, for example.

Swanson said he is in favor of several of the policies addressed in the survey, such as penalties for those who provide alcohol to minors – policies that have much greater relevance on a college campus.

Also, a keg registration policy will soon be adopted in Minnesota, Harwood said.

“If you’re purchasing the keg for a party of adults and it’s going to be used for that, what’s the fear?” Swanson said.

Harwood said she was not very surprised by the results, although the one significant change from the 1997 survey concerned youth penalties of alcohol law violations. In the newer survey, the percent of people who “agree” or “strongly agree” with leniency – focusing more on adult providers than youth offenders – rose to 52 percent from 40 percent.

“That says to me that there’s something going on there about being more lenient on young people who get caught drinking,” Harwood said.

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