that has more than 120 million drinkers, the need to do so has to be understood and embraced by many people in a position to reduce drinking opportunities for minors. An effective strategy will depend on adoption of public policies by authoritative decision makers about how to use tax money and public authority—for example, whether to use federal dollars to fund a national media campaign, how to enforce existing state laws banning sales to underage drinkers, or how local school boards should discipline students who drink. The process of enacting such policies will require some degree of public consensus, but this is only the start.
Ultimately, the effectiveness of government policies will depend on how enthusiastically a great many public and private agencies join in the effort to implement them. If parents, animated by a national media campaign, join local police and school boards in concerted efforts to discourage underage drinking and if alcohol distributors join with regulatory agencies to find means to deny underage drinkers easy access to alcohol, then the impact of government policies will be increased. In short, a public consensus to deal determinedly and effectively with underage drinking is needed not only to generate support for adopting strong policies, but also to make them effective. Conversely, both enactment and implementation will be seriously impeded if the public is divided or ambivalent about the importance of reducing underage drinking.
It is here that the greatest challenge lies. In the nation’s diverse society, communities have differing beliefs and sensibilities about the consumption and social meaning of alcohol use in general, as well as about what should be expected and demanded of young people during the transition between childhood and adulthood. These differences contribute to varying beliefs, varying public policies, and varying individual practices regarding underage access to alcohol. Although the vast majority of families would agree that the nation as a whole has a powerful interest in reducing the negative consequences of underage drinking on society and on the youths themselves, individuals, families, groups, and communities all have different views on the wisdom and propriety of various approaches to the problem.
In this respect, surveys that show that certain steps by governments (e.g., increasing alcohol excise taxes or restricting advertising) are widely supported obscures disagreements about whether young people should be severely punished for using alcohol, whether parents should be punished for allowing parties with alcohol for youth in their homes, or whether the legal drinking age should be 21.
The problem of mustering a societal consensus to achieve an objective as subtle, complex, and contested as reducing underage drinking can be