Notwithstanding the legal ban, alcohol is also readily available to underage drinkers. In recent surveys of high school students, 94.7 percent of twelfth graders and 67.9 percent of eighth graders reported that alcohol is “fairly” or “very” easy to get (Johnston et al., 2003). Purchase surveys reveal that from 30 to 70 percent of outlets may sell to underage buyers, depending in part on their geographic location (Forster et al., 1994, 1995; Preusser and Williams, 1992; Grube, 1997). Focus groups have also indicated that underage youths typically procure alcohol from commercial sources and adults or at parties where parents and other adults have left the youths unchaperoned (Jones-Webb et al., 1997; Wagenaar et al., 1993). Wagenaar et al. (1996) reported that 46 percent of ninth graders, 60 percent of twelfth graders, and 68 percent of 18- to 20-year-olds obtained alcohol from an adult on their last drinking occasion. Commercial outlets were the second most prevalent alcohol source for youths 18 to 20. For younger adolescents, the primary sources of alcohol are older siblings, friends and acquaintances, adults (through third-party transactions), and at parties (Harrison et al., 2000; Jones-Webb et al., 1997; Schwartz et al., 1998; Wagenaar et al., 1993). National surveys of college student drinking find that a large percentage of college youth report they do not have to pay anything for alcohol, presumably because they are at a party where someone else is supplying the alcohol (Wechsler et al., 2000).
American culture is also replete with messages touting the attractions of alcohol use, which often imply that drinking is acceptable even for people under 21. Recent content analyses of television showed that alcohol use was depicted, typically in a positive light, in more than 70 percent of episodes sampled from prime-time programs shown in 1999 (Christensen et al., 2000), and in more than 90 percent of the 200 most popular movie rentals for 1996-1997 (Roberts et al., 1999b). Roberts et al. (1999b) also found that 17 percent of 1,000 of the most popular songs in 1996-1997 across five genres of music that are popular with youth contained alcohol references, including almost one-half of the rap music recordings. Positive images are also disseminated by the alcohol industry, which spent $1.6 billion on advertising in 2001 and at least twice that amount in other promotional activity. Thus, overall, young people are exposed to a steady stream of images and lyrics presenting alcohol use in an attractive light.
An effective strategy to reduce a behavior as pervasive and widely facilitated as underage drinking will depend on a public consensus about both goals and means, which will require an unequivocal commitment from a broad array of public and private institutions. If the nation is to succeed in promoting abstention or reduced consumption by minors in a country