While traditional prevention has tended to focus on individual strategies, aimed at convincing individuals to choose not to use alcohol or other drugs, environmental strategies are prevention strategies that focus on changing conditions in the environment. These strategies are an essential part of any comprehensive prevention plan, because there are a number of conditions in the legal, physical, social, and economic environment that may make it easier for youth to use substances. Examples of such environmental conditions include inconsistent enforcement of the laws, easy access to alcohol or other drugs, aggressive alcohol advertising and media messages that link drug use with being "cool," and a social environment that encourages alcohol or other drug use as a rite of passage.
As an example, an environmental approach to reducing underage drinking would aim to address each of the following:
Availability of alcohol to minors
Retail access refers to the ability of youth to purchase alcohol for themselves in spite of laws that prohibit such sales. Minors might purchase alcohol either with the use of a false identification (ID) card or by buying it from a clerk who does not check the minor's ID. In some cases, minors might also steal alcohol from a store.
Social access refers to various non-commercial avenues by which minors might access alcohol, i.e. from a friend/acquaintance over age 21 who can legally buy it, taking it from a parent's liquor supply, parties where alcohol is served or is easily accessible by minors, or getting a stranger to buy it for them (sometimes called "shoulder tapping").
Regulations include all the laws, policies, and rules that impact the way alcohol is sold, marketed, and consumed. Relevant regulations include laws that prohibit possession of alcohol by a minor, furnishing and sales-to-minors laws, tax policy, laws and regulations that govern alcohol advertising, the policies of local police departments regarding how they handle an underage drinking incident, a local District Attorney's policies regarding prosecution of underage drinking and furnishing, school athletic codes, college policies, family rules, etc.
"Norms" is a term referring to the levels and types of drinking that are widely considered "normal" or "acceptable." Much research, particularly on college campuses, has documented a common phenomenon where people misperceive the "norms" and overestimate the frequency and amount that most people drink; as a result they increase their own drinking to be in line with what they think everybody else is doing. Therefore when examining norms, it is important to consider the actual behavioral norms (how much and how often most people drink), the norms that are communicated (for example, a couple of hours of prime-time television communicates a much different "norm" than most people see in real life), and the norms that are perceived.