How to curb teen drinking? Fine the adults who host them

Experts recommend focusing on 'social hosts'

How do you get a handle on teen drinking? Simply start with fining the adults who host the parties, experts tell NPR's Patti Neighmond.

About four of ten teenagers in Northern California say they host parties with alcohol—and 70% say their parents are aware of the illegal activity, according to research from the Prevention Research Center (PRC). (An additional 24% of teenagers hosting parties with alcohol say their parents "probably" know.)

Bettina Friese, a PRC researcher who led the study, says opportunities for teenagers to drink are prolific: the average teenager receives three to four text messages a week about parties, many of them with alcohol.

Adults who are aware of teen parties often try to set limits, such as making sure partygoers stay the night to avoid drunk driving, Friese acknowledges. Yet many parents are hesitant to put a complete stop to drinking in their homes, saying they are worried about alienating their children or that drinking somewhere else could be riskier.

Related: Why binge drinking never fades

Although many parents say they feel guilty about letting underage people drink in their home, they also conclude that it seems like the safest option. "I'd rather they make their mistakes when they're at home than when they're away," one mother told Friese.

Cracking down on 'social hosts'

It is an attitude that needs to change, says Bernadette Compean, an alcohol beverage control officer in Ventura County, California, a community with some of the most stringent "social host" laws in the country. Social host laws punish adults for underage drinking that happens on their property.

"The bottom line is you can't provide alcohol to minors, period," says Compean. Adults in Ventura Country who host a party where alcohol is made available to minors are fined $1,000 immediately, or if they are not home, then the host of the party gets the ticket. A second offence at the same location doubles the fine.

Efforts pay off

Originally passed six years ago, the law appears to be working. For example, in 2005-2006, 36% of 9th graders reported drinking alcohol in the past month, but that number declined to 25% in 2011-2012. The trend was similar across other grade levels and school districts.

Ventura County's success is typical, says M.J. Paschall, another researcher from PRC. Paschall conducted a study comparing the drinking habits of teens in cities across California. "We found that cities with more stringent and enforceable social host laws had lower levels of drinking at parties among teenagers compared to cities with less stringent laws, or without any kind of social host law," he says (Neighmond, NPR, 12/15).

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