The Problem: Alcohol consumption is a risk factor for many public health harms. Impaired driving is one of the largest contributors to motor vehicle crashes. Each year in the United States more than 10,000 people die in motor vehicle crashes involving an alcohol-impaired driver. In 2010, these crashes accounted for almost a third of all U.S. traffic-related deaths. CDC: Impaired Driving Factsheet. Excessive alcohol consumption is also a risk factor for cancer and other chronic conditions such as cirrhosis.
The Law: Dram shop liability holds the owner or server at establishments where patrons consume alcoholic beverages responsible for harms they subsequently inflict. Dram shop liability can be established by state statute or state case law. Dram shop laws are intended to deter servers from providing alcohol to minors or patrons who are already inebriated. Dram shop liability is distinct from “social host” liability; the former applies to commercial entities whereas the latter applies to non-commercial private citizens. For more information on dram shop liability including a chart describing current state laws, refer to Mothers Against Drunk Driving: Dram Shop and Social Host Liability. For an example of a state statute that creates dram shop liability, see 235 ILL. COMP. STAT. 5/6-21 (Illinois).
The Evidence: An expert panel at the Community Guide systematically reviewed studies assessing the effect of dram shop liability on alcohol-related harms. Rammohan et al, Effects of Dram Shop Liability and Enhanced Overservice Law Enforcement Initiatives on Excessive Alcohol Consumption and Related Harms: Two Community Guide Systematic Reviews, Am J Prev Med 2011; 41(3): 334-343. The reviewers identified 11 studies that fit their criteria of evaluating the relationship between dram shop laws and motor vehicle fatalities, alcohol consumption, or other harms. The six studies evaluating the effect of dram shop liability on alcohol-related motor-vehicle fatalities found a statistically significant median decrease of 6.4%. Smaller, but still statistically significant reductions were found for all-cause motor vehicle fatalities and underage motor vehicle fatalities. In light of the magnitude of the consistent positive relationship found between dram shop liability and reductions in alcohol-related harms, the authors classify the evidence supporting the effectiveness of these laws as strong.
The Bottom Line: According to the authors of a Community Guide systematic review, there is significant evidence to suggest that dram shop liability effectively reduces alcohol-related harms.