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Reducing Underage Drinking: A Collective Responsibility
Social Host Liability
Some courts have expanded the dram shop liability principles so that they apply to noncommercial servers, including social hosts, employers, fraternities, and other alcohol providers that are not licensed to sell or serve by the state. Under social host liability laws, adults who provide alcohol to a minor or serve an intoxicated adult can be sued through civil actions for injury caused by that minor or intoxicated adult. Social host liability laws may deter adults from hosting underage parties and purchasing alcohol for or providing alcohol to minors. Currently, 30 states have some form of social host liability law (MADD, 2002b). Many state legislatures have placed strict limits on social host liability and courts have historically been reluctant to impose it absent clear statutory authority. There is some evidence that this trend is changing. State legislatures are more willing to consider at least some form of social host liability for service to minors, and courts in recent years have been more willing to construe statutory limitations narrowly and impose social host liability, relying on common law negligence principles (Mosher et al., 2002).
There is very little research on the effectiveness of social host liability laws and what evidence exists is conflicting. In one study across all 50 states for 1984-1995, the presence of social host liability laws was associated with lower rates of alcohol-related traffic death among adults, but not with such deaths among minors (Whetten-Goldstein et al., 2000), and it was not related to single vehicle nighttime crashes for either group. Surprisingly, the presence of social host liability laws was related to increases in total motor vehicle fatalities among minors in this study. In a second study, however, using self-reported drinking data spanning the 1980s to 1995, social host liability laws were associated with decreases in self-reported heavy drinking and in self-reported drinking and driving by lighter drinkers, but not in self-reported drinking and driving by heavier drinkers (Stout et al., 2000). Separate data were not presented for minors.
The conflicting findings on social host liability laws may reflect the lack of a comprehensive program that ensures that social hosts are aware of their potential liability exposure. The prospect of liability for social hosts could send a powerful normative message to adults that providing alcohol to underage youth is unacceptable. However, that message must be effectively disseminated before it can have a preventive effect, either as a deterrent or as a moral injunction (see Holder and Treno, 1997). Media campaigns to educate the public would have to be an integral part of implementing social host liability laws. As a practical matter, imposing a criminal sanction, especially a jail sentence, on a parent who hosts a drinking party for minors may be more likely to attract media attention than a civil award of damages. For this reason, direct enforcement of the prohibi-