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The Effects of Environmental Factors on
Alcohol Use and Abuse

Historically, alcohol education and prevention efforts have focused on changing individuals’ behavior. Alcoholism, problem drinking, and drug addiction are commonly viewed in the United States as problems that arise out of human weakness; this is in line with American values of individualism and self-determination. However, public health experts and practitioners have learned that the environment in which people live and work heavily affects their attitudes and behavior around drinking. Environmental influences on alcohol use include: acceptance of alcohol use by society; availability (including price, number of outlets, and server practices); advertising and marketing both nationally and locally; and public policies regarding alcohol and enforcement of those policies.

Acceptance by Society
Acceptance of dangerous drinking is encouraged through mass media, peer attitudes, role models, and the attitude of society in general. Ways that this acceptance is demonstrated include:

  • Movies, videos, music and television that glorify drinking and drunken behavior
  • Sports figures, movie stars, peers and local role models that appear to gain popularity, sex appeal and fun from alcohol, with no ill-effects
  • Lack of negative consequences, either formal (laws, enforcement) or informal (social disapproval) for those who engage in dangerous drinking or create problems while drunk, sending the message that drinking is accepted, as is intoxicated behavior (including drunk driving, assault, vandalism and public nuisance)


  • The more licensed liquor establishments in an area, the more likely individuals are to drink. There is a 15-16% difference in individuals’ positive attitudes towards drinking, and an 11% increase in alcohol consumption, attributable to the density of alcohol outlets in their neighborhood.(1) This is also true of college students: the levels of drinking and participation in binge drinking are higher when there are more alcohol outlets near campus.(2)
  • Studies have shown that the lower the price of alcohol, the more people will drink. Drink price specials, kegs, and other sources of low-priced alcohol encourage binge drinking and intoxication.
  • Underage individuals are more likely to drink when alcohol is readily available to them. This includes being able to buy alcohol on their own at a bar or store, having others be able to buy it for them with little fear of consequences, and having the opportunity to drink freely at keg parties or other social events.

Advertising and Marketing of Alcohol

  • Americans are bombarded with alcohol advertising. Expenditures for beer advertising are estimated at over $3.74 billion per year.(3) Broadcast liquor advertising expenditures rose more than 620% between 1995 and 1997. (4)
  • Alcohol advertising helps create an environment that suggests that alcohol consumption and over-consumption are normal activities, and contributes to increased alcohol consumption.(5) Research has shown that media and advertisements are perhaps the most significant predictor of adolescents’ knowledge about beer, current drinking behavior, and intentions to drink. (6)

Public Policies and Enforcement

Laws and regulations around alcohol affect the community as a whole, and can help change social norms, thereby affecting alcohol use. Examples of laws and regulations that have been shown to reduce underage alcohol use, binge drinking and the consequences of intoxicated behavior include:

  • Requiring responsible alcohol beverage service training for bar owners and servers
  • Eliminating drink specials or setting minimum prices for drinks
  • Strengthening laws concerning hours of sale, density of retail outlets, and other factors affecting alcohol availability
  • Funding stronger enforcement of existing laws
  • Passing stricter laws concerning drunk driving and serving intoxicated drinkers
  • Instituting keg registration and increasing penalties on those who sell to, buy for, or serve underage drinkers
  • Reducing advertising and alcohol sponsorship of events
  • Restricting alcohol use or sale in parks, public places, community events, stadiums(7)
(1) Scribner, R. Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research, February 2000.
(2) Chaloupka, F. & Wechsler, H. “Binge drinking in college: the impact of price, availability and alcohol control policies.” Contemporary Economic Policy, vol. xiv, October 1996.
(3) Adams Business Media, Beer Handbook.
(4) Center for Science in the Public Interest Alcohol Policies Project.
(5) Saffer, H. Advertising and motor vehicle fatalities. Review of Economics and Statistics, 79 (3), August 1997.
(6) Gentile, D. et al. Frogs Sell Beer: the Effects of Beer Advertisements on Adolescent Drinking Knowledge, Attitudes, and Behavior. National Institute on Media and the Family, April 2001.
(7) Toomey, T. et al. “Policy Options for Prevention: The Case of Alcohol,” Journal of Public Health Policy, V. 20 No. 2, 1999.