Taking a Stand Against Underage Drinking

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Sometimes Store Policies Need to Make Up for Deficiencies in State Law

By: Jeffrey Meyers, Certified Prevention Specialist

When it comes to underage drinking, nearly everyone recognizes the harm that can stem from it. Alcohol’s intoxicating effect can be exacerbated on developing minds, leading to poor and dangerous decisions, as well as real long-term consequences. Heavy drinking over extended periods of time can lead to irreparable damage to anyone, especially youth, who may experience memory impairment and other deficiencies that can harm ones’ skills and abilities needed to lead a successful life. All of this is generally understood. What is not so readily known, however, are the laws and regulations governing the sale of alcohol. One such law, the Age of Seller, may be a noted factor in the accessibility in alcohol for teens.

Lest your eyes glaze over, Age of Seller refers to the age at which one is legally allowed to sell alcohol. This is generally divided in to two categories, on premise and off-premise. On-premise is for those businesses that dispense liquor within the establishment and has it consumed there, like restaurants and bars, whereas off-premise is those places in which alcohol is purchased but consumed elsewhere, such as your grocery and convenience stores. Iowa is unique in that persons as young as 16 years old are legally allowed to sell alcohol in off-premise locations, a fact that is perhaps quite surprising considering every other Midwestern state requires persons to be aged 18 to 21 in order to sell alcohol. This makes Iowa truly unique, and not necessarily in a good way.

Underage drinking is fueled by two major factors, perception of harm and ease of access. Simply put, it’s a problem because many teens don’t view it as that “big of a deal”, and don’t see it as much of a risk. In addition, it’s viewed as easy to get. How do we know this? A statewide survey distributed by the Iowa Department of Public Health, the Iowa Youth Survey, gives us a window in to the opinions and attitudes of teens. For Jones County, 50% of 11th graders reported some alcohol experience, with 68% of 11th graders finding alcohol to be “easy” or “very easy” to obtain. These are staggering numbers. How, then, does Age of Seller come in to play? When asked, 3% of 11th graders report that they had obtained alcohol by purchasing it. This accounts for a small fraction of underage drinking, to be sure, but a portion nonetheless and a number that can be easily lowered.

This is not to say that only those under the age of 18 or 21 can sell to a minor, we know that’s not true. Having someone as young as 16 be in charge of liquor and alcohol sales, however, certainly puts that person in a uniquely vulnerable position to sell to their underage peers. Teens at this age can be uncomfortable refusing an underage sale, especially if that potential buyer is a friend or peer at school. We also know that the brain is not considered fully developed until the age of 25, especially the prefrontal cortex, which allows someone to make rational decisions regardless of peer pressure. Youth tend to act on emotion when facing a decision, which can be a liability when it comes to selling alcohol.

Thankfully, individual businesses are able to adopt their own policies to strengthen the minimum standards set by the State. In fact, the majority of Jones County convenience and grocery stores report either an informal policy or practice to have all sellers be at least 18 years old, recognizing on their own the need to have staff be in the greatest position possible to deter selling to underage persons. Some may think this could lead to a loss of employment opportunities for teens, however this does not have to be the case. Some stores, for example, require clerks under the age of 18 to simply get a member of management or an older staff member when ringing up an alcohol sale. Other places designate underage youth to tasks that don’t require alcohol sales within the store. Whatever the policy, businesses that take a proactive approach to prevent underage drinking not only safeguard their own liability, but also perform a laudable service to the community as a whole by taking a stand, and sending the message that underage drinking should never be tolerated.