Public Comment

Kids, Alcohol and Science: A Warning to Parents

By the Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advocacy Coalition
Thursday August 14, 2008 - 09:05:00 AM

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series from BAPAC. 


Social norms are standards or guides that define correct and incorrect behavior in a given situation. Norms are reflected in our beliefs about what “most people like us do,” and these beliefs have a strong impact on our behavior. Students’ drinking behavior is shaped by their normative beliefs. The pressure to drink is inside the young person’s head, stemming from the pressure to conform to normative beliefs about alcohol use. For instance, the average 6th grader in the United States believes that half of his or her peers drink alcohol—well above the actual figure of 20 percent. 

Studies of UC Berkeley students show that a majority, including half of the underage students, 

consume alcohol at least every month. Almost one in three (31.1 percent) report experiencing some kind of serious personal problems, such as suicidality, being hurt or injured, or sexual assault, at least once during the previous semester as a result of drinking. Forty-one percent reported experiencing a minor personal problem, such as missing class, memory loss, having a hangover, or vomiting, during the previous semester as a result of drinking. Comments on their alcohol experience by students during a 2006 survey by Students for a Safer Southside include “Blacking out in the dorms and not knowing, ever, what happened”; “My roommate and I went to the hospital because of alcohol poisoning”; “My friends and I drink responsibly…I always stay under five shots so I’m not drunk.”  

As a society, we do a fairly poor job of shaping children’s normative beliefs about alcohol. When we fail to make our expectations clear, when we tolerate alcohol sales to minors, when we are indifferent to the media messages children receive about drinking, or when we ourselves use or serve alcohol irresponsibly, we contribute to children’s erroneous beliefs about drinking. If public policy is weak it leaves the establishment of norms to the alcohol industry and to youth culture itself. Marketing by the alcohol industry can have and is having a huge affect on norms; to counteract it we need strong public policy. Adults are targets of marketing as well: we tend to think alcohol is everywhere, normal, and “the legal one.” A result is that more than half of underage drinkers at Berkeley High get their alcohol from their parents, relatives, and friends. It is illegal for any adult to furnish underage youth with alcohol. 

What safety measures do we adults now have in place to protect our young people from severe harm and potential lifelong effects? We pay the taxes to our local government, we determine the regulations, and we pay for enforcement. Berkeley has a very high concentration of both off-sale (i.e. liquor stores in neighborhoods) and on-sale activities (restaurants downtown and south of UC Campus.) In a study of 500 UC Berkeley students conducted by Students for a Safer Southside, 20 percent of those who have been to a bar or restaurant near campus reported that their IDs were not checked the last time they went. Almost one in three (32.4 percent) reported that persons under 21 could obtain alcohol on premises, for example, by drinking from a friend’s cup. 

Many other cities in California are being confronted by this very issue, for example, Pacific Beach and the Gas lamp Quarter in the City of San Diego, the City of Oakland Downtown, the City of Santa Rosa Downtown Redevelopment Area. The response by these cities to address problems associated with this type of development is to enact regulations and enforcement programs. The Comprehensive Proposal presented by Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advocacy Coalition (BAPAC) takes this approach. If parents and the alcohol industry have biggest influence on social norms, the solution to changing those norms is to change public policy. A good example of this is the recent history of tobacco regulation. Excluding smoking from public places has led to reduced tolerance of smoking and reduced the number of smokers. 

Policymakers and concerned citizens (especially parents) can help to shape a community environment which supports healthy choices about alcohol use. Rather than focusing on the demand for alcohol by young people, successful programs intervene in the supply of alcohol. This results in 1) less drinking by 18- to 20-year-olds, 2) reduced sale of alcohol to minors, 3) reduced provision of alcohol to younger adolescents by older adolescents, and 4) more identification-checking by alcohol merchants, who also are less likely to sell to minors. 

It has always been BAPAC’s intention to address the entire alcohol environment in Berkeley. This includes retail (bars and restaurants), public (e.g. public nuisances associated with liquor stores and the party scene south of campus) and private (home parties and furnishing alcohol by adults to minors). BAPAC’s Comprehensive Proposal for Alcohol Regulations consists of several elements which combine regulation with inspection and enforcement at points of access. 

The BAPAC proposal is not radical. It is based on evidence from scientific studies and policy changes that have been shown to work in many other municipalities in California and other states. We can reduce the risks from alcohol. BAPAC asks the City of Berkeley to step up to its responsibility to protect us, youth and adults, from the more egregious effects of alcohol. IF we are interested in the safety and welfare of our youth, a good starting place is to change standards of normative behavior not only at home, but also by supporting changes in Berkeley’s alcohol policy. 


Karen Klitz, Laura Menard and Ralph Adams are members of the Berkeley Alcohol Policy Advocacy Coalition (BAPAC), a coalition of individuals from the community, research groups, and public agencies who have been meeting since 2004 to address our concerns regarding alcohol-related problems, to learn what others are doing to address these issues, and to work together to find and implement a solution. A comprehensive, prevention-based proposal was presented by BAPAC to the City Council on April 16, 2006. For more information or a complete version (with citations) of this commentary, contact BAPAC at