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Measuring Alcohol Policy Enforcement and Compliance

Introduction and Overview

The alcohol policy research literature has long recognized that enactment of alcohol laws or regulations is just one aspect of the policy process. How a particular law is implemented may be critical to its ultimate effect on public health outcomes. Typically, an alcohol policy seeks to change the behavior of targeted individuals, groups, or organizations. The policy may or may not be complied with, and the intended change in behavior may or may not occur, depending in part on the extent to which the policy is enforced, with subsequent implications for the desired effects on outcomes. Measurement and analysis of enforcement and compliance, then, may be critical to research on the effects and effectiveness of alcohol-related public policies (see, e.g., Wagenaar and Wolfson 1994).

The role of enforcement in policy effectiveness will vary depending on the nature of the policy. At one extreme, policies such as bans on off-premises Sunday sales of alcohol are relatively easy to enforce. Retail alcohol sales occur in plain view in public places and violations are easy to detect. By contrast, laws such as those that limit blood alcohol levels for motor vehicle operators may require relatively high levels of enforcement to achieve compliance at desirable levels. In this case, detecting a violation requires monitoring of traffic, stops of suspected violators, and the collection of biological samples to measure blood alcohol concentration.

Because of their potential importance to alcohol policy research, this section of the APIS Web site addresses issues pertaining to measurement of alcohol policy enforcement and compliance. In addition to this Introduction and Overview, this section provides a detailed table of available enforcement and compliance measurement databases and academic literature reviews and analyses of the enforcement and compliance research literature from the disciplinary perspectives of public health/public policy, sociology/criminology, and economics.

"Compliance" and "Enforcement" Defined

Compliance is the extent to which an individual, organization, group, or population acts in accordance with a specific public policy.

Enforcement is the sum total of actions taken by public entities to increase compliance with specific public policies. Private entities may address alcohol policies as well; APIS does not address those private policies.

Enforcement is a composite construct that includes at least three components:

  • Policing
  • Adjudication
  • Sanctioning

The impact of enforcement on compliance with alcohol policies is a function of both actual and perceived levels of enforcement (i.e., levels of policing, adjudication, and sanctioning).

Actual levels of enforcement may vary depending on qualitative characteristics (e.g., special DWI patrols vs. roadblocks) and on quantitative differences in policing, adjudication, and sanctioning (numbers of officers on patrol, severity of sanctions).

Perception of the probability of apprehension (policing), swiftness and certainty of a penalty (adjudication), and severity of the penalty (sanctioning) may also affect compliance with a particular policy. These perceptions are key factors in the extent to which an alcohol-related policy functions as a deterrent to illegal behavior (Ross, 1992). Factors that affect these perceptions, such as publicity about enforcement efforts may be construed as part of enforcement.

Compliance may also be affected by extra-legal constructs, including informal social controls related to community norms or the activities of concerned citizen groups or community alcohol prevention coalitions.

Measuring Compliance, Enforcement, and Contextual Factors

Because compliance is a behavior, it can be measured directly. Measurement techniques may vary with the specific policy area and target population under consideration. For example, retail stings directly measure merchant compliance with underage sales laws, roadside breath-tests measure citizen compliance with BAC laws, and school surveys measure youth compliance with underage drinking laws. These example measures exhibit fairly high degrees of both face validity (i.e., the extent to which a measure makes sense "on the face of it") and construct validity (i.e., the extent to which the measure reflects what it is intended to reflect), because the measures derive directly from the compliance behaviors they are designed to measure. Table 1 presents sample compliance measures suggested by the academic literature reviews and analyses of the enforcement and compliance research literature prepared by APIS

Table 1: Sample Compliance Measures

Given the complexity of the enforcement construct as discussed above, enforcement may be best measured by incorporating multiple aspects, either separately or in the form of composite indices. There is no current consensus concerning which enforcement variables to include and what weights (if any) to give these variables. In addition, some candidate measures may incorporate confounding elements, such as the simultaneous effects on arrests of both intensity of enforcement effort and frequency of violations (i.e., noncompliance). As a result of the multifactorial nature of enforcement, the conceptual difficulties with specific candidate measures, and the limited availability of suitable data, the measures of enforcement that appear in analytic studies are likely to vary widely. Table 2 presents sample measures of enforcement activity suggested by the academic literature reviews and analyses of the enforcement and compliance research literature prepared by APIS

Table 2: Sample Enforcement Measures

A number of contextual factors may affect compliance or may mediate the effects of enforcement on compliance in any given policy area. These factors may help explain differences in enforcement and/or compliance between different states or communities, or changes in enforcement or compliance over time.

Table 3: Sample Contextual Factors

Ross H., Confronting Drunk Driving: Social Policy for Saving Lives. Vail-New York: Ballou Press (1992).

Wagenaar, A. & Wolfson, M., Enforcement of the legal minimum drinking age in the United States. Journal of Public Health Policy 15(1):37-53 (1994).

Files Referenced on Page:

Data Sources

Analysis and Compilation of Data Sources

This document provides an analysis of publicly available data sources for the measurement of variables related to enforcement and compliance. Detailed tables provide information on five relevant databases including an assessment of their strengths and weaknesses as sources of enforcement and compliance data.

Literature Reviews and Analyses

Public Health and Public Policy

An analytic review of theory and research from the fields of public health and public policy related to the measurement of enforcement and compliance.

Sociology and Criminology

An analytic review of theory and research from the fields of sociology and criminology related to the measurement of enforcement and compliance.


An analytic review of theory and research from the field of economics related to the measurement of enforcement and compliance.

Table Samples

Table 1: Sample Compliance Measures

Table 2: Sample Enforcement Measures

Table 3: Sample Contextual Factors

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