An ounce of alcohol prevention

My husband and I reached another parenting milestone this spring when we allowed our 17-year-old daughter to stay home overnight by herself. We left her with the family dog, important phone numbers, and this admonition: “no liquor parties.”

We were mostly joking because we knew that having friends over to drink was about the furthest thing from her mind; fortunately, her idea of a fun night at home involves Netflix—not law breaking. But it was impossible to banish all worry from my mind as I considered how those situations always unfold in the movies—as word gets out, teenagers gather at an unsupervised home to raid the liquor cabinet, and before long the place is trashed and surrounded by police cars with flashing lights.

Youth and alcohol have never been a good mix; according to a 2003 report by the National Research Council’s Institute of Medicine, underage drinking costs the United States at least $53 billion a year, mostly because of traffic deaths and violent crime. Although parents of tweens might think they have a few years before they need to worry about this issue, statistics say otherwise. The 2010 Minnesota Student Survey indicates that youth report experimenting with alcohol—beyond a few sips—as early as age 10. Of the state’s sixth graders who took the 2010 survey, 19 percent of boys and 13 percent of girls reported that they first had more than a few sips of alcohol at age 13 or younger.

Despite the laws that prohibit people under age 21 from buying and consuming alcohol, and that prohibit adults from providing alcohol to minors, teens with determination and opportunity have continued to find ways to gather and drink. But thanks to the work of law enforcement officials, elected officials, and concerned parents, many Minnesota communities now have a new tool to use in the effort to curb underage drinking: social host ordinances.

Host gets hit the most

A social host ordinance makes it unlawful for someone to provide an environment where underage drinking takes place, regardless of who provides the alcohol. Family members of the property owner who are at the event are considered a host, regardless of their age. Violating the ordinance is a misdemeanor offense that carries a maximum penalty of 90 days in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Kandiyohi County passed Minnesota’s first social host ordinance in 2007, followed by the city of Chaska. Six years later, social host ordinances are in effect in 22 counties and 97 cities. Like any ordinance, they are enforceable only within the boundaries of the city or county that adopted them.

Gordy Pehrson, youth traffic safety and alcohol coordinator with the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, says social host ordinances are not the only solution to the problem; rather, by holding people accountable for hosting parties where underage drinking occurs, they complement other existing laws and strategies.

These ordinances, and other laws, are not there to get people in trouble, they’re there to prevent people from getting injured, and to keep kids and communities healthy,” he says.

Educating the public and policymakers about social host ordinances is important because some people have misconceptions about them, Pehrson says. For example, if parents allow their own child to drink wine at a family dinner in the home, they are exempted from the ordinance, but that would not be the case if they allowed someone else’s child to drink in their home. Also, he notes, parents would not be held responsible under the ordinance if their 17-year-old has a party in their home while they are gone, provided the parents didn’t know that underage drinking was going to occur.

Since Rice County adopted a social host ordinance two years ago, four people have been prosecuted for violating it. Sheriff Troy Dunn says the ordinance has helped deter people—not only high school students, but also college students—from hosting parties where underage guests bring their own alcohol. “It wasn’t our goal to see how many people we could bust with it; we wanted to educate the community, and say, ‘If you choose to do this, you’re going to be held accountable.’”

Dunn recommends that parents talk to their kids early and often about their expectations regarding underage drinking and its consequences. If parents, school personnel, law enforcement officials, and other community members all reinforce the same, consistent message, young people will be more likely to take it seriously.

“It has to be a team effort; we can’t just do it alone,” he says.


Joy Riggs is a mother of three teenagers. She lives in Northfield. Send comments or questions to jriggs@mnparent.com.