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Compliance Checks of Alcohol or Tobacco Retailers

Description of Strategy

A compliance check is a tool used to identify alcohol and tobacco establishments that sell to underage youth and to increase retailer compliance with prohibitions on alcohol and tobacco sales to minors. The practice of conducting compliance checks can be mandated by a local ordinance. Typically the ordinance will outline the standards for conducting the checks; the people or agencies responsible for conducting the checks; and the penalties for establishments, servers, and sellers who illegally sell or serve alcohol/tobacco to underage youth. The practice also may be voluntarily implemented by law enforcement or licensing authorities. Compliance checks have two general purposes. The first is to enforce state criminal statutes and/or local administrative ordinances. The second purpose is to identify, warn, and educate alcohol /tobacco establishments that serve or sell alcohol/tobacco to underage youth.

Compliance checks are typically implemented by a standard procedure. For example, initially alcohol licensees are informed that compliance checks will occur at various times throughout the year and about potential penalties for selling alcohol to underage youth. During the check, an enforcement agent (police officer or other authorized person) waits outside the premises while a person under the age of 21 attempts to purchase or order an alcoholic beverage. If the alcohol establishment sells alcohol to the young person, the enforcement agent issues a citation either to the seller/server or to the establishment. The police officer may charge the server or seller who sold the alcohol (when compliance checks are used to enforce state laws governing servers and sellers), or the officer may issue an administrative citation, which is imposed upon the alcohol license holder rather than the individual server or seller (when compliance checks are used to enforce local administrative ordinances). Administrative charges are easier, faster, and less expensive to prosecute, which can make them the best option for penalizing alcohol establishments—and in some communities it is the only option (University of Minnesota Alcohol Epidemiology Program, 2011).

Similar standard procedures may be used in compliance checks of tobacco retailers.

Discussion of Effectiveness


Alcohol compliance checks as part of a multi-component intervention were generally found to be effective at reducing underage sales (Wagenaar, Toomey, & Erickson, 2005; Saltz, Welker, Paschall, Feeney, & Fabiano, 2009), and may reduce underage alcohol consumption (Bonnie & Oconnell, 2004).


The CDC Community Preventive Service Task Force’s systematic review found insufficient evidence on the effectiveness of active enforcement of sales laws in reducing minors’ access to tobacco when implemented alone because few studies qualified for review (Guide to Community Preventive Services, 2001a). However, studies published after completion of the review found that tobacco retail outlet inspections were associated with decreased sales to youth (Tangirala, McKyer, Goetze, & McCarthy-Jean, 2006). A systematic review of interventions to prevent tobacco sales to minors cautioned that while an increase in compliance may reduce youth access to tobacco, it does not necessarily change perception of access or smoking behavior among youth (Stead & Lancaster, 2005).