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Town Hall Meeting e-alerts are technical assistance newsletters to help event organizers plan, host, and evaluate events aimed at mobilizing a community around evidence-based prevention of underage drinking.

A Healthy Return on Your Town Hall Meeting Investment—Getting to Outcomes: Controls on Alcohol Outlet Density and Location


Economists often refer to home ownership as the biggest investment most Americans ever make. But there is something else we all invest in of even greater value—America’s youth. Whether we are acting to promote the health and success our own children or of children in general, we are investing in America’s future. During 2012, hundreds of communities across the United States will conduct Town Hall Meetings, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), to promote underage drinking prevention as a way to safeguard this investment. Some of these events will focus on controlling alcohol outlet location and density. Areas with higher alcohol outlet density have higher levels of heavy drinking and alcohol-related problems, including violence, crime, alcohol-involved traffic crashes, and injuries, which suggests that efforts to lessen density will reduce these negative consequences. Controls on outlet outlets are one form of environmental prevention1 that can pay big dividends in reducing underage drinking. (These controls also may help to protect or increase the value of your home!)

What are controls on alcohol outlet density and location?

Density of alcohol outlets refers to number of outlets in a given area; location has to do with the proximity of outlets to areas frequented by youth, such as a recreation center or a university campus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in its Guide to Community Preventive Services, defines controls on alcohol outlet density as “applying regulatory authority to reduce alcoholic beverage outlet density or to limit the increase of alcoholic beverage outlet density. Regulation is often implemented through licensing or zoning processes. An alcohol outlet is a place where alcohol may be legally sold for the buyer to drink there (on-premises outlets, such as bars or restaurants) or elsewhere (off-premises outlets, such as liquor stores).”

How do controls on alcohol outlet density and location reduce underage drinking?

Density and proximity of alcohol outlets play a sizable role in underage drinking by increasing youth access to alcohol. College students, for example, tended to drink more frequently and heavily and experience more alcohol problems when alcohol outlets were located within 2 miles of campus.2 Reducing the number of alcohol outlets in a given area will limit ease of access and the physical availability of alcohol to youth. Similarly, creating geographic buffer zones between alcohol establishments and a youth-related area will make alcohol less prevalent in their immediate environment.

How can my community take this action?

Take the following steps to reduce alcohol outlet density in your community:

  • Assess alcohol density in your community, with special attention to outlets near schools and other youth-related areas. Work with a group of neighbors or recruit young people to survey and map the number and locations of alcohol outlets in the targeted community/neighborhood. You can also contact the State’s licensing board or local alcohol licensing authority for the location of the alcohol licensees in the community.

  • Develop a strategic plan. Use the preceding assessment to develop a local plan. Your plan might, for example, create geographic buffer zones of approximately 1,000 feet between alcohol outlets and schools, playgrounds, other youth facilities, and residential neighborhoods. It also might promote conditional use permits that require alcohol establishments to meet minimal agreed-upon conditions in order to continue operating (e.g., requiring bars to document that their bartenders attend a responsible beverage service training course). Recruit institutions responsible for establishing, maintaining, and enforcing compliance with zoning regulations within the community.

  • Raise public awareness. Conduct activities to show the link between the density and location of alcohol outlets in the community and the rate/type of alcohol-related problems. More than any other environmental factor, alcohol outlet density appears to be connected to location-specific violent crime.

  • Measure and report successful outcomes to help ensure strong implementation and sustainability of controls. Some objective measures of effectiveness are:
    • Increased distance between alcohol outlets and between an alcohol outlet and a youth-related facility or area;
    • Reductions in the number of alcohol-related crimes and other problems (e.g., alcohol-related crashes) in a targeted area;
    • Decreased rates of underage drinking; and
    • Decreased number of calls to law enforcement complaining of incidents related to specific alcohol outlets or near alcohol outlets.

Helpful Resources

CDC’s The Health Communicator’s Social Media Toolkit has information to expand your organization’s outreach.

Community Anti-Drug Coalitions of America’s Strategizer 55—Regulating Alcohol Outlet Density: An Action Guide supports community efforts to reduce the number of places that sell and serve alcohol by providing information and guidance on implementing public health and legal strategies.

SAMHSA’s Focus on Prevention guides communities in planning and delivering substance abuse prevention strategies, including assessing needs, identifying partners, creating effective strategies, and evaluating programs.


1 Effective environmental prevention targets four key areas that influence alcohol problems: access and availability, policy and enforcement, community norms, and media messages. Research shows that policies that change the context of the environment, limit access to alcohol, and prevent harmful behavior will result in reduced alcohol use, including underage drinking.

2 Kypri, K., Bell, M. L., Hay, G. C., & Baxter, J. (2008). Alcohol outlet density and university student drinking: A national study. Addiction, 103(7), 1131–1138.

Weitzman, E. R., Folkman, A., Lemieux Folkman, K., & Wechsler, H. (2003). The relationship of alcohol outlet density to heavy and frequent drinking and drinking-related problems among college students at eight universities. Health & Place, 9(1), 1–6.

3 White, A. M., Hingson, R. W., Pan, I., & Yi, H-Y. (2011). Hospitalizations for alcohol and drug overdoses in young adults ages 18-24 in the United States, 1999-2008: Results from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72(5),774–786.