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Restricting Minors’ Access to Bars

In many states throughout the country, minors – those under the legal drinking age of 21 – are permitted in bars unaccompanied by an adult. State and local regulations vary widely in the extent to which they permit minors to enter on-sale retail alcohol outlets (Inspector General 1991). While some states may restrict minors’ access to bars and nightclubs, they may allow them into restaurants that serve alcohol. Others may prohibit minors from entering any establishment licensed to sell alcoholic beverages. The fact is that while all states have established a minimum drinking age of 21, few prohibit all aspects of the purchase, possession, or consumption of alcohol by those under age 21.

One thing is clear: allowing minors into drinking establishments such as bars and nightclubs is, in the words of one enforcement official, “a regulator’s nightmare.” (Inspector General 1991). It creates numerous difficulties for servers, who must conduct repeated identification checks and continuously track who is actually drinking the beverages being served. It allows minors to consume alcohol purchased from older individuals. And it encourages minors to drink as a way to socialize and become one with their peers.

Strategies that limit access to alcohol by minors are some of the most powerful and well-documented approaches to reduce underage drinking and related problems. And one of the key ways to reduce access is to prohibit minors from entering bars. If minors are barred from the establishment, age identification checks can occur primarily at the door, conducted by trained employees using proper tools and lighting, thus greatly reducing the ability of minors to obtain alcohol on the premises.

The Facts

  • Fifty-three percent of underage college students reported that when they drank in the past thirty days, they did so at an off-campus bar; 20% reported that they drank at an on-campus pub. (Wechsler et al. 2000).
  • When they first begin drinking, minors often obtain alcohol from home, with or without their parents’ permission. (Wagenaar et al. 1993) As they get older, they are more likely to obtain alcohol from friends and siblings over age 21 and at parties (Wagenaar 1993, 1996, Jones-Webb et al. 1997). However, older underage drinkers, such as college students, are more likely to report buying alcohol from licensed alcohol establishments (Wagenaar 1996)
  • Alcohol is readily available to underage individuals through licensed alcohol outlets because merchant compliance with minimum drinking age laws is generally lax. Underage buyers were able to buy alcohol in 97% of purchase attempts in Washington DC, 82% of attempts in Westchester County, NY, 44% of attempts in Schenectady, NY (Preusser et al. 1992), and 59% of attempts in northwestern New Jersey. (O’Leary et al. 1994)
  • Fifty-four percent of underage students reported that access to alcohol is very easy and another forty percent reported that access is easy. These same students reported that they obtained alcohol from another underage student (80%), obtained alcohol without proof of identity (27%), or obtained alcohol with false identification (21%). (Wechsler et al. 2000)
  • Underage college drinkers are more likely than their of-age counterparts to suffer consequences ranging from unplanned sex, getting hurt or injured, requiring medial treatment for an alcohol overdose, and doing something they would later regret. (Wechsler et al. 2000) These problems often have impacts not just on the drinkers, but on fellow students and area residents as well.
  • Twenty-one percent of the nearly 8,000 drivers ages 15-20 who were involved in fatal motor vehicle crashes in 1996 had been drinking and nearly 14% of them were legally intoxicated (blood alcohol concentration greater than 0.10%). (National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration 1998)

Policy Solutions
Many policies have already been instituted to reduce alcohol availability to minors. These have included raising the minimum legal drinking age to 21, conducting merchant compliance checks for sale of alcohol to minors, and raising taxes on alcohol. While these measures have been effective in reducing fatal motor vehicle crashes involving alcohol among minors and retail alcohol sales to minors, improving existing laws related to minimum purchase age for alcohol, such as prohibiting minors from entering bars, can also help to reduce minors’ access to alcohol. These policies, along with measures that require sellers of alcohol to be 21 years old, that make the manufacture or purchase of false identification a crime, and that hold alcohol outlets liable for harm that occurs as a result or providing alcohol to minors, are part of a broader strategy to reduce underage drinking and prevent threats to the health and safety of minors and others in the community.

Inspector General. (1991). Youth and alcohol: Laws and enforcement – Is the 21-year-old drinking age a myth? Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Office of the Inspector General.
Jones-Webb, R., T. Toomey, K. Miner, A.C. Wagenaar, M. Wolfson, and R. Poon. Why and in what context adolescents obtain alcohol from adults: a pilot study. Substance Use and Misuse 32(2): 219-228. 1997.
National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration (NHTSA). “1996 Youth Fatal Crash and Alcohol Facts,” http://www.dot.gov/people/injury/alcohol/promdrunk/youthdrunkdriving.html (June 30, 1998).
O’Leary, D., D.M. Gorman, P.W. Speer. The Sale of Alcoholic Beverages to Minors. Public Health Reports (109)6: 816-818. 1994.
Preusser,D.F., and A.F. Williams. Sales ofalcohol to underage purchasers in three New York counties and Washington,DC. Journal of Public HealthPolicy13(3): 306-317. 1992.
Wechsler, H., et al. Environmental correlates of underage alcohol use ad related problems of college students. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 19(1):24-29. 2000.
Wagenaar, A.C. Minimum drinking age and alcohol availability to youth: issues and research needs. In: Hilton, M.E., and G. Bloss, eds. Economics and the Prevention of Alcohol-Related Problems. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) Research Monograph No. 25. National Institutes of Health (NIH) Pub. No. 93-3513. Bethesda, MD: The Institute, 1993. Pp. 175-200.
Wagenaar, A.C., T.L. Toomey, D.M. Murray, B.J. Short, M. Wolfson, and R. Jones Webb. Sources of alcohol for underage drinkers. Journal of Studies on Alcohol 57(3): 325-333. 1996.