Social Host Laws Help Reduce Underage Drinking

Most teens get alcohol from social sources

Two Girls Drinking
Teens Get Their Alcohol From Friends, Parents. © Getty Images

There is little doubt that communities pay a high price for underage drinking in costs associated with hazardous drinking, drunken driving, and other alcohol-related problems. Government surveys indicate that 11% of 8th graders, 27.6% of 10th graders, and 41.5% of 12th graders have taken at least one drink in the past 30 days.

And, the kids say alcohol is easy to get. According to 2012 Monitoring the Future Survey, 57.5% of 8th graders, 78.2% of 10th graders, and 90.6% of 12th graders said that for them alcohol would be "fairly easy" or "very easy" to acquire.

Communities Can Pass Social Host Laws

No single effort is going to prevent or curtail underage drinking, but there are steps that communities can take to help reduce teen drinking: hold the adults who furnish alcohol to underage drinkers accountable.

Because most teens get their alcohol from social sources - from friends or family members who are of legal drinking age - laws that target the adults who furnish alcohol to minors should, in theory at least, have an effect on underage drinking.

The Two Types of Social Host Laws

Laws that hold adults who furnish alcohol to teens responsible are called "social host" laws. There are basically two types of social host laws:

  • Criminal laws prohibiting hosting of underage parties, whether the adult furnishes the alcohol or not, that can lead to punishment including fines or imprisonment.
  • Civil liability laws that allow someone to seek monetary damages for injuries resulting from permitting underage drinking on the host's property.

    Generally, the criminal social host laws are passed by a local city or county government, while the civil liability laws can only be passed on the state level.

    Effective Social Host Law Elements

    Researchers have found that the most effective social host laws have the following elements:

    • Apply specifically to underage drinkers
    • Allow swift administrative penalties
    • Do not require specific knowledge of underage drinking

    In other words, the toughest social host laws hold adults accountable if an underage drinking party is held on their property whether they knew the drinking was going on or not.

    Reducing Underage Drinking and Driving

    Currently, there is limited research to determine just how effective these type laws are in reducing underage drinking. A 2010 study that examined the effects of civil liability social host laws on alcohol-related auto fatalities among 18-to-20-year-olds, found a 9% reduction in traffic deaths.

    However, the same study found that the social host liability laws had no significant effect on reducing alcohol use and binge drinking among those in the 18-20 age group, although a significant reduction in self-reported drinking and driving was found.

    A 2013 study, found that the longer communities had in effect laws against hosting underage drinking parties, the less likely teens reported drinking with large groups.

    A Study of 50 California Cities

    A 2014 study by researchers at the Prevention Research Center in Oakland, California, looked at 50 cities in California, 24 of which had passed local social host laws.

    The researchers also examined each city for other factors that might influence youngsters to drink, such as other prevention efforts, bar density of the community, local adult alcohol use and the city's demographics.

    The study found that teenagers who lived in the communities with particularly strong social host laws were less likely to report drinking at parties. They also reported less frequent drinking than their peers in the cities without social host laws.

    Findings Are Preliminary

    The researchers were quick to point out that their study's findings were preliminary and they could not conclude that social host laws prevent underage drinking, but the findings were encouraging.

    Lead researcher Mallie J. Paschall, Ph.D., the laws should help reduce youth drinking.

    "It does look like there is less-frequent drinking among teenagers in cities with stringent social host laws, even when other cities and youth characteristics that are related to underage drinking are controlled for, " Paschall said. "So these laws might be an effective strategy for reducing hazardous drinking."

    More Needed Than Passing a Law

    Paschall said it's important that communities not only pass the laws but get the word out through as many ways as possible to let the public know the laws are on the books. The laws won't be much of a deterrent if adults in the communities do not realize that they can be held responsible, he said.

    Another key aspect is enforcement. Some aspect of the social host laws can be controversial and in some communities, they are not enforced, sometimes because there is little public support for the laws and sometimes because local prosecutors do not push enforcement.

    Enforcement is absolutely essential for the social host laws to work, Paschall said.


    Dills, A. K. "Social Host Liability for Minors and Underage Drunk-Driving Accidents." Journal of Health Economics 2010

    Paschall, MJ, et al. "Relationships Between Social Host Laws and Underage Drinking: Findings From a Study of 50 California Cities." Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs November 2014

    Wagoner, K. G., et al. "Social Host Policies and Underage Drinking Parties." Substance Use & Misuse, 2013