Public Release: 

Licensed alcohol establishments continue to sell to intoxicated patrons

Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research

  • Most U.S. states have laws that prohibit sales to obviously intoxicated persons.
  • A new study confirms that alcohol sales to obviously intoxicated patrons nonetheless continues at a high rate in both on- and off-premise establishments.
  • Younger-appearing servers/clerks were significantly more likely than older-appearing servers/clerks to sell alcohol to intoxicated buyers.

Currently, 47 states and the District of Columbia prohibit sales to obviously intoxicated persons (Florida, Nevada, and Wyoming are the only exceptions). Despite these laws, alcohol sales to obviously intoxicated patrons in on-premise establishments, such as bars, continue to occur 58 to 85 percent of the time. A study in the May issue of Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research confirms that the likelihood of alcohol sales to obviously intoxicated patrons in both on- and off-premise establishments (such as liquor stores) is very high, and that younger servers/clerks are significantly less likely to withhold service.

"This study confirms what other studies have found, that sales to obviously intoxicated customers in on-premise establishments is highly likely," said Traci L. Toomey, assistant professor in the division of epidemiology at the University of Minnesota and first author of the study. "Additionally, this study also shows that these types of illegal alcohol sales may be even more likely at off-premise establishments."

Trained actors posing as intoxicated patrons attempted to purchase alcohol at 223 on-premise and 132 off-premise establishments in 11 communities in a large Midwestern metropolitan area during a 10-month period beginning in September 1999. In addition to recording whether or not an establishment sold alcohol to a "buyer," researchers also collected data regarding the perceived age and gender of the server/clerk, the surrounding area (commercial or residential), exterior maintenance, type of license (limited or full), whether or not warnings about drinking & driving were posted, and time of the purchase attempt.

"Nearly 8 out of every ten establishments sold alcohol to someone very obviously intoxicated," said Toomey. She was not surprised by the results; nor was James F. Mosher, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Enforcement Policy at the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation.

"Anecdotal reports from researchers, Responsible Beverage Service (RBS) trainers, law enforcement officials and retail staff all point to a similar conclusion," said Mosher. "However, this study uses strong methodology, identification of key variables contributing to the problem, and clear presentation to show that the law is being widely ignored despite its importance in protecting the health and safety of the community. Those who live near liquor stores and bars know from experience that these establishments contribute to the problem of alcohol-related violence and injury by serving patrons who are already intoxicated. What many people may not know is that serving intoxicated patrons is illegal."

"Little attention has been paid to illegal sales to intoxicated customers," added Toomey, "just as sales to underage youth once received little attention. Back then, the likelihood of sales to underage youth was similar to what we observed in this study in terms of the likelihood of illegal sales to intoxicated customers. On a positive note, as communities actively addressed illegal sales to youth, the likelihood of sales to underage youth decreased."

The study also found that those servers/clerks who appeared younger than 31 years of age were significantly more likely than older-appearing servers to sell alcohol to intoxicated buyers.

"This is not a surprise at all," said Mosher. "One would expect that younger servers/clerks are less likely to intervene, particularly when they are underage. They are either dealing with peers, and peer pressure will make it difficult to intervene, or with older patrons, who may be intimidating. Keep in mind that the off-premise retail industry in particular has pushed for legislation that permits them to hire underage clerks (18 years old or even younger), paying minimum wage. Although not to the same degree, on-premise establishments also rely heavily on unskilled, underpaid youthful staff. Retailers often fail to provide even the most basic training or supervision of these workers. Given these conditions, the higher rates of violation among younger servers are predictable."

Mosher had several suggestions regarding what measures could encourage compliance with the law. "First," he said, "increase enforcement. The police could conduct highly publicized, routine compliance checks; impose civil penalties that attach to the retailers' licenses when violations are detected; and suspend/revoke licenses of those with repeat violations. Fine revenues can be used to pay for the cost of the enforcement program. Next, mandate comprehensive RBS training. A large number of states already mandate or promote RBS programs on a statewide level. Servers and clerks should receive a permit upon successful completion of RBS training, which should also be required for employment in a licensed establishment. Permit dram-shop liability lawsuits, wherein private parties injured by patrons of licensed establishments who were served while intoxicated should be permitted to sue the establishments where the service occurred. Conversely, if the establishments can show that their staff was trained and that training procedures were followed, then they should have a defense against the lawsuit. Finally, conduct additional research to determine the impact of the above interventions on public health outcomes. It is remarkable, given the potential of these interventions for reducing crime, violence, alcohol-related motor vehicle crashes and other forms of alcohol-related trauma, that they have been so widely ignored in the research literature."

Toomey is currently evaluating a training program that targets owners and managers of alcohol establishments - Project ARM (Alcohol Risk Management). "The goal of this four-session, one-on-one training program is to help owners and managers of on-premise establishments develop establishment policies promoting responsible service of alcohol," she said. "Trainers help the owners and managers introduce the new policies at a staff meeting at the establishment. The ultimate goal of the project is to help establishments prevent sales to obviously intoxicated patrons."


Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research (ACER) is the official journal of the Research Society on Alcoholism and the International Society for Biomedical Research on Alcoholism. Co-authors of the ACER paper, "Illegal alcohol sales to obviously intoxicated patrons at licensed establishments" were: Alexamder C. Wagenaar, Darin J. Erickson, Linda A. Fletcher, William Patrek, and Kathleen M. Lenk, all of the School of Public Health, Division of Epidemiology at the University of Minnesota. The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.

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