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The spread of social-host laws makes it harder to teach a European model here. True, it's unlikely that police are going to raid private homes when only parents and their kids are together. But social-host prosecutions can be quite aggressive; in 2002 a Virginia mom and stepfather were sentenced to eight years behind bars for serving their son and his friends for the boy's 16th birthday. The couple had collected car keys in advance, and no one was hurt. But after years of failed appeals, the mom and stepdad, now divorced, had to report to jail last year. (In the end, they had to serve only five months, not eight years.)
Most social-host laws give police expansive powers. According to data compiled by the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, an organization based in Calverton, Md., that studies alcohol policy, only eight of 67 U.S. jurisdictions with social-host laws require that the homeowner have "actual knowledge" of underage drinking at the house to be charged with a crime. In other words, you can violate most social-host laws even if you are in another country when your kid decides to party. And under many social-host laws, a meal with wine served at a dinner table is treated no differently from a kegger if neighbors are present with their kids. In short, we are encouraging kids to leave their homes (presumably by car) and drink in parks or abandoned warehouses or anywhere else they think they won't get caught and their parents won't get arrested.
It's not surprising that social-host laws don't seem to work as intended. In 2003, San Diego became one of the first big jurisdictions to adopt a social-host ordinance (both the city and county of San Diego passed a social-host law that year). After some legal wrangling, a tougher version of the city's law was enacted in 2006. Yet according to the San Diego Police Department, patrol-car responses to parties in the city increased from 7,265 in 2002 to 9,383 last year. (This figure includes parties with both underage and of-age drinkers, since it's impractical for cops to ID everyone once they arrive. But it is teen parties that get the loudest.)
The period since the city's social-host law was first enacted has also seen an enormous increase in the number of kids going to hospitals with alcohol-related problems. According to data from San Diego County's health department, the number of minors presenting alcohol and substance-abuse problems at health-care facilities in the jurisdiction rose from 473 in 2002 to 892 last year. At one of the city's biggest hospitals, Sharp Memorial, 7.3% of underage trauma admissions involved alcohol in 2002; by 2005 the figure was 13.4%.
In other words, the social-host law appears to have broken up big house parties into many smaller ones. Possibly because fewer adults are present, the parties are less supervised, and more kids are getting so drunk they end up in the ER.
When I mentioned some of the arguments against social-host laws at the San Diego County Alcohol-Policy Panel, DiCiccio offered another reason that kids shouldn't drink with adults: alcohol could hurt their developing brains.
It is accepted as an article of faith in the prevention community that "the teen brain" should not be exposed to any alcohol. But the research on alcohol and the young brain is actually quite murky. It has mainly shown that very high doses of alcohol given to adolescent rats (those roughly 40 days old) affect those animals differently from the way alcohol affects adult rats. In typical studies, the rats are injected with 5 g of alcohol per 1,000 g of their body weight, often after the rodents have been deprived of food for 12 hours. Rats metabolize alcohol about 10 times as fast as humans, but in a typical rat, this 5 g/kg dose on an empty stomach still results in a monumentally high blood-alcohol concentration. "It's difficult to compare to humans, but it's about a case of beer," says Aaron White, an alcohol researcher at the Duke University Medical Center--that's a case of beer ingested all at once.
What these rat studies tell us is that exposure to very large amounts of alcohol (particularly repeated exposure) probably inhibits normal brain development. And yet there are signs that in certain ways the adolescent brain is better equipped to handle alcohol than the adult brain. Adolescent rats show less vulnerability than adult rats to alcohol's sedating effects (which is one reason kids can party so much longer than adults). Other studies have found that, as White writes, "adolescents may be less sensitive than adults to the effects of alcohol on motor coordination." None of this means you should let your kids get drunk with their friends. But there's little reason to think small amounts of alcohol consumed at family meals will be as harmful.
Because alcohol is harder to obtain now than in the '70s and '80s, more kids are delaying their first drink. But most people will drink before 21, and it's a reasonable goal for parents to be there when it happens. "What if a kid has never had alcohol and drinks for the first time at 21?" asks Peele, the author of Addiction-Proof Your Child. "If they haven't developed a capacity to regulate themselves with alcohol at all, you can be headed for trouble."