Strict Social Host Laws Can Lead to Less Underage Drinking

Good news: those strict “social host” laws seem to be working. Teens who live in communities with such laws are less likely to spend weekends drinking at parties,
according to a new study in the Journal of Studies and Alcohol and Drugs.

Social host laws hold adults responsible when teens drink in or around their homes, even if it is without permission. Many states and local communities have passed them across the country, but the details of the laws vary. Research has not proven whether or not they actually keep kids from drinking.

In this study, researchers focused on 20 California communities, half of which had social host laws. They found that teens were less likely to report drinking at parties when they lived in communities with particularly strong social host laws. However, the findings show a correlation and not necessarily a direct effect of the laws, said lead researcher Mallie J. Paschall, Ph.D., a senior research scientist at Prevention Research Center in Oakland, Calif.

But, Paschall said the results were encouraging.

“Most kids get alcohol from social sources, not commercial ones,” he said. “It does look like there is less-frequent drinking among teenagers in cities with stringent social host laws, even when other city and youth characteristics that are related to underage drinking are controlled for. So these laws might be an effective strategy for reducing hazardous drinking.”

Paschall said that “strong” social host laws should: specifically target underage drinking; have a civil penalty, such as a large fine, that’s given out quickly and hold property owners responsible, even if they claim they didn’t know about the underage drinking.

Paschall acknowledged that the laws are controversial and not enforced by police in some communities, sometimes because there is little support for the policies from the public or the local prosecutor’s office. But in order for the laws to work, they must be enforced.

“If adults don’t know they could be held responsible for underage drinking, the policies won’t be much of a deterrent,” he said.

The researchers plan to do future studies on this subject, such as looking at rates of teen drinking before and after the passage of social host laws to get a better idea of whether the policies themselves have an impact. Paschall noted that it will be important to see whether or not the laws reduce problems related to teen drinking, including impaired driving.

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