Underage Drinking & the Law

What parents need to know now about the new Social Host Laws

Three steps to a successful Social Host Ordinance

Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/publik16/

So many laws, so few results

At last count, thousands of municipalities and communities have passed a version of a Social Host law or ordinance over the past 25 years. It’s difficult to compare results from community to community because the laws vary widely by scope, target, definitions and penalties. However, we have been seeking objective pre- and post-measurements on a community by community basis and have seen few.

Thousand Oaks, California

We were grateful when the Ventura County Star recently posted the results of six years’ enforcement of a social host ordinance in the city of Thousand Oaks, California, one of the 200 largest cities in the United States. We read it with great eagerness, hoping to see some measurable results and a rationale for all the costs of enforcement.

Unfortunately, we were left wondering, what was achieved?

This is not a comment on Teresa Rochester‘s excellent reporting but on whether the city ever set specific goals or designed an ordinance that would accomplish what we all hope for, fewer teens injured or killed. Thousand Oak’s SHO penalizes party hosts if police discover underage drinkers on site. The article states, “The 6-year-old ordinance is designed to crack down on underage drinking by imposing civil fines on party hosts. The fine for the first offense is $2,500.”

Let me repeat that: The stated goal was to “crack down on underage drinking” and the tool was to charge party hosts a steep fine. That would lead us to think they’ve established steep fines so people think twice before allowing teens to drink in their home. Rochester quotes Thousand Oaks’ police chief, Cmdr. Randy Pentis speaking to Thousand Oaks High School student athletes and their parents, last week. It seems Cmdr. Pentis would agree with that, calling the SHO “another layer of protection by reducing the level of home parties” and referring to it as an “important” and “very, very good tool.”

Instead, it looks like the ordinance just reduced the size of the parties busted by police. According to Evalcorp, a local research and evaluation service for health, education or criminal justice organizations throughout the country, by 2009, the number of parties didn’t fall, but the size of the parties who were busted were smaller. The article states, “One-third of underage drinking parties in Thousand Oaks had 51 or more participants in 2007, according to Evalcorp. Parties of that size dropped to zero during the first five months of 2009.”

That could mean that fewer teens are drinking, or it could mean that teens went further underground, keeping party sizes small to avoid detection by police and parents. What Cmdr. Pentis called “reducing the level of home parties” is quite different from reducing the number of teens drinking or reducing the number of parties. It’s possible the number of parties may have risen to accommodate the number of teens still drinking.

Which is it? Unfortunately, the number of citations tells us the amount of teen drinking may not have dropped with the party size. Since the ordinance became law in 2006, 94 citations have been issued, the vast majority of which were issued to minors, not parents. In 2010, 8 minors were cited, 9 in 2011 and 12 so far this year and we’re not into December, yet, the month when most teens try alcohol for the first time. Hmm, it appears the citations against minors are rising, not dropping. In the same period, 5 adults were cited in 2010, 8 in 2011 and 1 so far in 2012. Is that a measure of success or a lack of communication? Isn’t the goal to reduce the number of minors drinking?

What else did the Social Host ordinance accomplish in Thousand Oaks? One more objective measure reported is the revenue from those citations. Since the law went into effect, $124,546 in revenue has been collected. Since 94 citations would have equaled $235,000 in fines, and the reported revenue includes interest and penalties for late payments, upping the expected total, the shortfall is significant. Some of the citations were commuted to community service, due to lack of financial means. Perhaps some are still owed and perhaps some of those cited were deemed innocent. Still, the revenue represents almost $1 for each citizen of Thousand Oaks, whose 2011 population was just under 128 thousand. Or $124 per oak.

The need for objectivity

While well-intentioned, Social Host ordinances rarely establish objective and measurable criteria for success or for describing the issue. Instead, all too often, these new punitive laws are passed on a wave of personal or emotional reasons, like the death or extreme injury of a child due to his or someone else’s alcohol use. While we would never trivialize the depth of sorrow and rage a parent might feel in that situation, we believe deep emotions are never a reason to create punitive laws.

However, there are many ways to help reduce underage drinking, especially binge drinking and driving while drunk, and all of them would benefit from more community involvement.  Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) has done a fabulous job educating the whole country about the evils of driving after drinking. Their educational efforts at the grass-roots level is a model for all of us on how to change behavior and attitudes. While we disagree with their stance on SHOs, we admire their success.

The next most frequently cited reasons for creating an SHO are either to send a message to parents or because a neighboring city or county has passed one. The first one is sheer laziness. If you really want to send a message to parents that permitting teens to drink in their home is unacceptable in your community, here are two steps other communities have done:

  1. Make attendance mandatory for at least one parent or guardian at a presentation about social hosting before their child can be on a sports team or participate in any extracurricular activity at the school. Before they can leave, they have to sign a pledge saying they understand and won’t permit underage drinking by other people’s children in their home. (Most states permit parents/guardians to serve alcohol to their own children. Religious holidays are the other exception.) While not legally binding, it’s the best way to “send a message” to parents. Repeat and refresh every year.
  2. Urge local police to strictly enforce the existing laws and publicize the arrests in your local papers and online news sources (ie., examiner.com or patch.com)

The second reason – a neighboring city or county has passed one – is what I like to call the “he did it first” defense. It wasn’t acceptable when my son used it and it shouldn’t be a reason for a law that can ruin as many lives as it saves.

Three steps to creating a successful SHO

The only way we will ever know if any Social Host ordinance or law is successful will be when three steps are followed:

    1. Measure. What is the existing level of harm from underage alcohol use? The only objective measures of harm are EMT and hospital reports of minors injured due to their own alcohol ingestion. Alcohol poisoning, broken limbs due to falls, fights, car accidents, deaths are all counted and reported on a regular basis. Surveys are faulty because they don’t differentiate between legal alcohol use (ie., religious occasions and parental in-home consent) and illegal drinking plus they are dependent on teens self-reporting alcohol use. Those numbers can be skewed by younger kids bragging or older, college-bound students underreporting.
    2. Target. Write the new law to help reduce measurable levels of harm. Don’t muddy the waters by including clauses from existing state or county laws. For example, the state-level “furnishing” law already deems it illegal for anyone of any age to serve, sell, or provide a minor with alcohol. The loophole we are trying to close with Social Host laws are adults who are present when minors drink in their residence or place of business and don’t try to stop them. In many communities that is broadened to anyone of any age who is present when minors drink, including other minors. We consider that hypocritical (see Catch 21: The teen trap). If your community is upscale, make the fines reflect that. If not, keep the fines in line. Include a community service option for those who can’t afford the fines.
    3. Review. Every year, the number of arrests or citations that are successfully completed and the EMT/hospital reports showing the number of minors injured due to their own alcohol ingestion should be reviewed and evaluated. If both sets of numbers are going down, even if just the rates of injured minors have dropped, you have a successful Social Host law. If both are rising, your law isn’t working and it needs to be reworked.


If your community has objective results to share from your Social Host law or ordinance, please email us.

2 comments on “Three steps to a successful Social Host Ordinance

  1. JamFest 16
    November 18, 2012

    Essential reading for any community considering a social host law…for fairness and fund raising!

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