Prosecuting Mom and Dad

In the aftermath of a New Year's Eve party involving underage drinking, a dentist and his wife from the affluent New York suburb of Scarsdale have been charged with "first degree unlawfully dealing with a child," a misdemeanor, and are being arraigned Feb. 8.

The couple may serve a year in jail for allowing teenagers to imbibe in their home. This is not an isolated incident. In communities all over the country, from California to Florida to Illinois to Vermont, state and local "social host" laws such as the one used to charge the Scarsdale couple are furtively being passed in an effort to put a stop to teenage alcohol use, making criminals out of otherwise responsible, law-abiding parents all across America.

As an alcohol and drug abuse expert and the mother of four, I worry that out of frustration, fear, and desperation, criminal justice efforts to eliminate underage drinking, targeted at parents, may actually worsen the situation and reduce teen safety.

It is imperative to first look at the context of drinking in America. Alcohol has always been America's drug of choice – the substance we use to celebrate (Let's drink to that!), recreate (I can't wait to kick back and have a cold one), and medicate (Man, I really need a drink).

Although we may not approve, it's worth remembering that teenage alcohol use is nothing new. It's been a part of American culture since the first Puritan settlers in the 17th century, and has worried parents since that time. As City University of New York professor Harry G. Levine, an eminent alcohol historian, told me, "For 400 years, adult Americans have drunk alcoholic drinks – rum, ale, corn whiskey, lager beer, roaring '20s cocktails, gin, wine, scotch, vodka, and nowadays piña coladas in cans. And for 400 years, each generation of American parents have [sic] also worried about the drinking and drunkenness of their teenaged children and fretted about their incapacity to eliminate it, or even reduce it. None of that is new. But the riskiness of teenage drinking is greater now than in the past because of our reliance on automobiles."

Indeed, the most lethal aspect of underage alcohol use, by far, is drunk driving, with the National Highway Safety Administration reporting in 2003 that nearly 2,400 teens died in car accidents involving alcohol and far more were seriously injured. It is for this very reason that some parents, particularly in suburban communities where so many young people drive, have reluctantly permitted their teens to drink at home.

Alcohol use by a sizable number of teenagers is not likely to go away any time soon. In fact, last month's annual survey, Monitoring the Future, revealed that once again alcohol overwhelmingly topped the list of teenagers' drugs of choice, with 77 percent trying it at some point during their high school years and 60 percent having gotten drunk – 30 percent within the past month.  

In my work as a drug researcher and educator, I have spoken confidentially with hundreds of parents who have strongly encouraged their teens to abstain, assessed the reality of this request, and then reluctantly provided their home as a safe space to gather. (See Partying With My Parents.) These parents do not condone or promote drinking. Nor do they provide or serve alcohol at parties. But they understand that underage drinking will occur, whether or not they approve. The difficult decision they make has driving in the forefront of their minds. They confiscate car keys and keep an eye out for problems, believing their teens are safer at home where they can be supervised, than on the road.

I hate to see safety-oriented parents vilified, but worry even more about the teenagers they're trying to protect. When I ask young people how they'll respond to the proliferation of these local ordinances, which will effectively eliminate the availability of parentally supervised homes where they can "hang out," not one says they'll stop drinking. Instead, they say they will simply move the party to the street, the local park, the beach or some other public place. And they'll get there by car.

Before there are more car accidents and other alcohol-related problems, we should reassess our approach to underage drinking. Obviously, abstinence would be the safest choice. In the meantime, comprehensive alcohol education is imperative, as are crackdowns on drunk driving. But let's get real. There will always be parties, and while we encourage and promote sober gatherings, parents should have a fallback strategy that makes sure drinking and driving don't mix. Sending parents to jail for trying to keep their teenagers safe is not the answer, and it may ultimately do more harm than good.

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