Social Host Laws Are the New Black

Social Host Ordinances fight underage drinkingThe village of Geneseo in New York State, home to SUNY Geneseo, has one. In fact 18 out of 62 counties in New York have one. And they’re popping up, or threatening to pop up, all over the country.

They’re social host ordinances: laws that prohibit people from hosting parties at which underage drinkers are present. As more and more towns, cities, and counties recognize the problem of underage drinking, citizens have turned to social host laws to fight the practice.

In Geneseo a host who knowingly allows a minor to drink alcohol or take drugs at his or her party can be fined $250 for a first offense, and $500 for subsequent offenses. There is also the possibility of a 15-day jail term and a court-ordered alcohol awareness program.

One county in one state is not news. But social host laws are a trend that has taken hold in many states.

Mille Lacs in Minnesota is considering a no-nonsense ordinance: the fine would be $1,000, and the jail term 90 days. Todd County in Minnesota is also debating a social host law, as is Stevens Point, Wisconsin, Fort Collins, Colorado, and Putnam County, West Virginia. And Daly City in California just passed one.

Some of these laws are named after the victims of drunk driving crashes or cases of alcohol poisoning which were caused by an unwitting or misguided adult who furnished booze to a minor.

Do social host laws on their own prevent underage drinking? Not any more than drunk driving laws on their own prevent drunk driving. The laws are a step in a process by which a culture gradually changes. When parents realize that their teenager’s Saturday night beer bash is not only frowned upon but illegal, they might think twice before giving it a green light, or they might supervise it to make sure that alcohol and drugs are not present.

There is some preliminary evidence that social host laws lead to less underage drinking. It has been noted that most kids get alcohol from friends and parents, not from stores, so targeting social sources makes sense. But it’s too early to tell if the laws on their own will have a big effect on underage drinking.

Nevertheless, the trend is clear, and more cities and towns will soon follow Geneseo’s example, and partake in a social experiment whose outcome, if successful, could save young lives.