Armed with survey results showing higher than average rates of binge drinking among Shenendehowa High School students, a group of area residents is working to build support for a social host law in Clifton Park. Such laws penalize people who host parties where underage drinking occurs.
Evan Williamson, who coordinates the Shenendehowa Community Coalition, said that the group’s survey showed that nearly half of juniors and seniors had consumed alcohol in a home without a parent present. A social host law, he said, could make a parent think twice about allowing a party at the house or to more proactive in discouraging parties.
“It gives them the ability to say, ‘I’ll get in trouble, and you’ll get in trouble,’ ” he said. “If you’re hosting a party with underage drinking and you’re putting kids in danger, you should get in trouble for that.”
Social host laws differ slightly from community to community, with some laws holding people responsible beginning at age 16 and others at 18. Most often, the charge is a misdemeanor or a violation.
The first social host law was passed in 2006 in the Nassau County city of Long Beach.
Today 30 municipalities and 12 counties in the state have social host laws. Six more counties, including Rensselaer, are considering adopting such laws. In the Capital Region, Stillwater, Mechanicville, Scotia, Niskayuna, Cohoes, Gloversville, Mayfield and Johnstown all have social host laws, as do Albany and Montgomery counties.
Last week Gloversville police charged a 20-year-old man, Aaron B. Thompson, with violating the city’s social host law after responding to a party at his Lincoln Street home. Twenty-one teens and young adults were charged with unlawful possession of alcohol.
Gloversville Police Capt. Donald VanDeusen said that the city’s social host law, which was passed in 2007, “gives us another set of teeth to bite with.” He said police probably use the law “a handful of times each year” and he considers it an effective deterrent. “Now there’s a stigma,” he said. “The average person does not want their name in the paper, or to be arrested.”
Robin Lyle, the coalition development director for The Prevention Council in Saratoga Springs, said efforts to curb underage drinking used to focus on stores, restaurants and bars, assuming that underage drinkers acquired beer and liquor using fake IDs or with the help of law-breaking employees. But research has shown that the majority of underage drinkers obtain alcohol at the homes of friends and acquaintances, often at parties — “through social means, rather than retail,” she said. “Social host laws give you the mechanism for dealing with that.”
Pinpointing who hosted a party is often easier than figuring out who provided underage drinkers with alcohol, Lyle said.
“We see social host as another arrow in our quiver,” Lyle said. “No one thinks it’s going to be the entire answer.”
Although much of the social host discussion focuses on teaching parents that drinking should not be tolerated, many of the people arrested under such laws are young adults and other teens.
Judy Vining, co-chair of the New York State Environmental Prevention Task Force, was involved in the effort to pass the Long Beach social host law. Thus far, there have been approximately 42 citations under the law, with all but two being issued to people under the age of 21. She said that prior to the social host law, “if there was a savvy person in the house, they would deny entry to the police,” she said. “The law allows them to enter a house where there’s a party.”
Vining said that the New York State Environmental Coalition, a group encompassing more than 80 New York state organizations that aim to reduce teen drinking and drug use, would like to see a state social host law passed.
Social host laws typically target people who know, or have reason to know, that alcoholic beverages or drugs are being unlawfully served to or possessed by minors on property they control. If a parent leaves town and had no idea a party was going to take place, they would not be charged under the law. But if the child had a history of hosting such parties, the parent could be held liable.
Laura Combs, who coordinates the Capital Region BOCES CAPIT (Comprehensive Approaches to Prevention, Intervention and Training) Program, said most teenagers do not obtain alcohol from their parents but through older siblings or adult acquaintances. She said there are already laws on the books to address these types of situations, such as laws against endangering the welfare of a child or contributing to the delinquency of a minor.
“Sometimes [social host] laws sound good, but are they really needed?” Combs said. “For us as a prevention organization, we have limited resources. We have to pick and choose what we focus on. We think helping parents understand how to have a conversation with their kids about drugs and alcohol is more important. We want to focus more on supporting parents and families in building positive relationships.”
Combs said social host laws do raise awareness about the problems associated with hosting underage drinkers, which is good.
It’s unclear how effective social host laws are.
Robert Pezzolesi, founding director of the Syracuse-based New York Alcohol Policy Alliance, said there hasn’t been a lot of research on the effectiveness of social host laws.
“Social host is kind of in the ‘maybe’ category,” Pezzolesi said. “It seems to make sense. It fits into an overall framework that says that underage drinking is not acceptable, that it’s not a harmless rite of passage.”
A 2011 paper in the Touro Law Review, titled “Are New York’s Social Host Liability Laws Too Strict, Too Lenient or Just Right?”, examined the effectiveness of social host laws in New York. The author, Jared Wachtler, said he found that such laws appear to make a difference.
“They make a parent think twice about providing alcohol and providing parties,” said Wachtler, who wrote the paper when he was a law student and is now a law clerk at the New York City-based firm Tarter, Krinsky & Drogin. “If they end up saving lives, even just one, then it’s worth having them. If one parent says, ‘No, you can’t have a party’ to a high school student and there’s no accident because there was no party, that’s a good thing.”
Lyle said newer research on the adolescent brain suggests that teens make decisions differently than adults when under the influence of alcohol, and are guided more by emotion. In addition to the potential for alcohol poisoning and car accidents, teens who drink are more likely to find themselves in unwanted sexual situations. Teens who start drinking earlier are more likely to develop problems with drinking later in life.
The Shenendehowa Community Coalition survey found that drinking and drug use among high schoolers had dropped since 2008, when the last such survey was conducted, but that 31 percent of juniors and seniors reported binge drinking in the previous year, compared to a national average of 22 percent.
Binge drinking is defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as a pattern of drinking that brings a person’s blood alcohol concentration to 0.08 percent or above within about two hours. That would be equivalent to about five drinks in two hours for men, and four for women.
Williamson said that the coalition’s survey results indicate that many people are already under the impression that Clifton Park already has a social host law, even though it doesn’t. A subcommittee exploring the possibility of bringing a social host law to Clifton Park has found that many people support the idea but some are resistant to it, he said.