Aim This study examined how community alcohol outlet density may be associated with drinking among youths.
Methods Longitudinal data were collected from 1091 adolescents (aged 14–16 at baseline) recruited from 50 zip codes in California with varying levels of alcohol outlet density and median household income. Hierarchical linear models were used to examine the associations between zip code alcohol outlet density and frequency rates of general alcohol use and excessive drinking, taking into account zip code median household income and individual-level variables (age, gender, race/ethnicity, personal income, mobility and perceived drinking by parents and peers).
Findings When all other factors were controlled, higher initial levels of drinking and excessive drinking were observed among youths residing in zip codes with higher alcohol outlet densities. Growth in drinking and excessive drinking was, on average, more rapid in zip codes with lower alcohol outlet densities. The relation of zip code alcohol outlet density with drinking appeared to be mitigated by having friends with access to a car.
Conclusion Alcohol outlet density may play a significant role in initiation of underage drinking during early teenage, especially when youths have limited mobility. Youth who reside in areas with low alcohol outlet density may overcome geographic constraints through social networks that increase their mobility and the ability to seek alcohol and drinking opportunities beyond the local community.