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A Healthy Return on Your Town Hall Meeting Investment—Getting to Outcomes: Social Host Liability Laws

04/10/2012

Who is responsible for making sure that America’s investments in underage drinking prevention yield healthy returns? Is it the government or schools or law enforcement? Is it parents? The same question about responsibility is asked—and answered—in The Surgeon General’s Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking, which states: “It is easy to assign to someone else responsibility for changing public attitudes toward underage drinking and for reducing its prevalence. However, the responsibility for preventing and reducing underage alcohol use belongs to everyone in America.” During 2012, hundreds of communities across the United States will conduct Town Hall Meetings, sponsored by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), to encourage all members of a community to do their part. Many of these events will focus on social host liability laws, which hold offending adults accountable for contributing to the tragic consequences of underage or excessive drinking. Social host liability laws are one form of environmental prevention1 that can help communities achieve measurable reductions in underage drinking.

What are social host liability laws?

Social host liability laws state that adults who provide alcohol to minors or those who are obviously intoxicated can be held legally liable if the person is killed or injured or kills or injures another person. The extent of these laws varies from State to State, with some States extending liability to cover both minors and intoxicated adults. In some States, social host liability is covered under dram shop laws. Dram shop liability refers to a drinking establishment’s potential financial liability for serving alcohol to an intoxicated or underage person who later causes injury to a third party. However, dram shop laws usually cover only commercial service and not alcohol provided by individuals.

How do social host liability laws reduce underage drinking?

According to a 2005 American Medical Association report, one third of teens surveyed responded that it was easy to obtain alcohol from their own parents and with their parents’ knowledge, which increased to 40 percent when the alcohol was from a friend’s parent. One in four teens had attended a party where minors were drinking in front of parents.

Social host liability laws help to reduce youth access to alcohol by discouraging adults from providing alcohol to minors or tolerating its consumption on their property. These laws have proven effective in reducing both underage drinking and its consequences. In one analysis of all 50 States, social host liability laws were associated with reductions in heavy drinking as well as in drinking and driving.2 A 2010 study found that among 18- to 20-year-olds, social host liability laws for minors reduced the drunk driving fatality rate by 9 percent.3

How can my community take this action?

Take the following steps to initiate or strengthen social host liability laws:

  • Assess your State and community’s current laws. If social host liability laws are already in place, then assess the degree to which they are being enforced. If an ordinance or law is not in place, mobilize to get one passed. Your effort could target the city, county, or State level.

  • Provide a ready-made social host liability law or ordinance as a model for lawmakers. Some issues to consider when drafting a law are whom the law should target (i.e., whether the law covers adults who provide alcohol to those who are obviously intoxicated or underage youth or both) and the degree of knowledge that hosts must have (e.g., whether adults must “knowingly” allow underage drinking parties in their home).

  • Build community support for social host liability laws from parent groups, law enforcement, and other community members. Public awareness activities can help the community understand the relationship between easy access to alcohol and increased consequences, such as motor vehicle crashes and fatalities. Promote public awareness of the fact that when parents or other adults provide alcohol to youth, they are breaking the law and contributing to alcohol-related problems in their community.

  • Measure and report successful outcomes to help ensure strong implementation and sustainability of social host liability laws. Some measures of effectiveness are reductions in:
    • Youth arrested for driving under the influence;
    • Alcohol-related crime;
    • Motor vehicle crashes and fatalities involving youth;
    • Alcohol-related injuries;
    • Adults arrested for providing alcohol to youth; and
    • Adults arrested for violating social host liability laws.

Helpful Resources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s The Health Communicator’s Social Media Toolkit has information to expand your organization’s outreach.

SAMHSA’s Focus on Prevention guides communities in planning and delivering substance abuse prevention strategies, including assessing needs, identifying partners, creating effective strategies, and evaluating programs.

The Surgeon General’s Call to Action To Prevent and Reduce Underage Drinking: What It Means to You: A Guide to Action for Communities summarizes facts and recommendations from the 2007 Surgeon General’s appeal to the Nation. A similar Guide to Action for Families looks at actions that audience can take to stop underage drinking from occurring.

U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Violence Prevention’s January 2011 Prevention Update, Social Host Ordinances and Policies, summarizes recent knowledge and links to resources including a widely cited model policy publication.

Notes

1 Effective environmental prevention targets four key areas that influence alcohol problems: access and availability, policy and enforcement, community norms, and media messages. Research shows that policies that change the context of the environment, limit access to alcohol, and prevent harmful behavior will result in reduced alcohol use, including underage drinking.

2 Stout, E., Sloan, F., Liang, L., & Davies, H. (2000). Reducing harmful alcohol-related behaviors: Effective regulatory methods. Journal of Studies on Alcohol, 61(3), 402–412.

3 Dills, A. K. (2010). Social host liability for minors and underage drunk-driving accidents. Journal of Health Economics, 29(2), 241–249.