Parents: Underage Drinking is Illegal, Even Under Your Roof

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It's almost summer. For teens, that means parties — celebrating everything from prom to graduation, to two months without school — and those parties usually involve alcohol. Many parents try to handle the dilemma of allowing their kids to have a good time without getting hurt by providing alcohol to teens at semi-supervised house parties. But is that really a good solution?
Consider a recent case in Westborough, Massachusetts. Police pulled over an 18-year-old whom they suspected had just injured a woman in a hit-and-run accident. They spotted a bottle of rum in his car and administered a sobriety test, which the teen failed. After they arrested him for drunk driving, the teen revealed that he had gotten the alcohol from his friend's parents, who had hosted an underage drinking party at their home.

Those parents were charged criminally with providing alcoholic beverages to persons under 21, and police in Westborough are vowing to crack down on parents who give alcohol to minors. This story, unfortunately, is not unique. It follows a disturbing national trend of parents hosting “drinking parties” for their children and their children’s friends.

Many parents swear they would not give their children alcohol. In fact, 99 percent of parents recently surveyed by Columbia University’s National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse, say they are not willing to serve alcohol at their teen’s parties. However, that same survey found that 28 percent of teen partygoers have been to parties at a home where parents were present and teens were drinking.

The study also highlighted the disconnect between parents’ naïve perceptions and the harsh reality of what goes on at teenage parties. Parents are turning a blind eye to teenage drinking: the Columbia University study found that 80 percent of parents believe that neither alcohol nor marijuana is usually available at parties their teens attend. But, 50 percent of teen partygoers report attending parties where alcohol, drugs or both are available.

State laws are simply not strict enough on parents who provide alcohol to minors. Many states allow parents to provide alcohol to their children, and only one state, New Mexico, makes it a felony for any person to knowingly provide alcohol to minors. We need a concerted effort from state lawmakers to close loopholes that allow children to drink on private property.

Underage drinking is a persistent problem in the United States. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 30 percent of children between ages 12-20 report current alcohol consumption. Teens who drink typically have their first alcohol experience early as age 12, accounting for 4.2 percent of the underage drinkers. From there, the drinking rate among teenagers doubles every year, with 40 percent of 17-year-old reporting using alcohol at least once a month.

And where are these teens getting the alcohol? Much emphasis is placed on bars and liquor stores that sell alcohol to minors, but state laws should also be looking to home. According to a recent study by the Century Council, 65 percent of underage drinkers get their alcohol from relatives or friends, with only 7 percent of teenagers reported obtaining alcohol from retailers.
Illinois and Louisiana, along with 29 other states, still maintain lax laws that allow minors to drink in a private residence as long as a parent or guardian is present. In 2005, South Dakota Gov. Mike Rounds vetoed legislation that would have allowed prosecutors to more easily convict adults who host parties attended by underage drinkers.

Some states are on the right track. Colorado, Florida, and Virginia have all passed laws that suspend the licenses of those who help underage drinkers obtain alcohol from 90 days, up to six months. A New Hampshire law particularly carves out a penalty for parents who hold graduation or post-prom drinking parties, and California recently passed a bill that would jail parents who provide alcohol to a minor who was subsequently involved in a car accident.

But more needs to be done. States should follow the example of New Mexico, which not only made it a felony to provide alcohol to minors, but also increased the jail time those who supply the alcohol could face. Parents need to know there are real consequences for their actions and not merely a slap on the wrist. All states should eliminate the loophole that allows underage consumption on private property.

Those who support parental supervision of teenage drinking point say it teaches children how to be responsible with alcohol in a safe environment. The idea is particularly popular in Europe, where teenage drinking rates are lower than the United States. In fact, a study from the Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University recommended that parents host drinking parties to teach teens how to drink in moderation.

But that argument doesn’t persuade me. First, most European countries have higher driving ages than the United States, so although teenagers may be allowed to drink earlier, drunk driving is not as great a concern. Second, children who begin drinking before the age of 15 are four times more likely to become alcoholic as an adult than those who begin at 21, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Finally, there is no way to guarantee a completely safe environment when alcohol is involved. Parents may think taking away keys will do the trick, but drunk driving is only one of the concerns when teenagers get a hold of alcohol. What about alcohol poisoning, rape or serious injuries, all of which can result from drinking?

As parents, it is our responsibility to protect our children and teach them right from wrong. It is not cool or hip to host drinking parties for your children and their friends — it’s simply dangerous. While states need to recognize this danger and tighten underage drinking laws, it’s also up to us to cut off one source of alcohol for teenagers. So if your children ask, just say no.

E-mail us your opinion on parents serving alcohol to teens!


Columbia University’s National Center of Addiction and Substance Abuse

National Survey on Drug Use and Health

Century Council

Centre for Public Health at Liverpool John Moores University

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism

Leadership to Keep Children Alcohol Free

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Lis Wiehl joined FOX News Channel as a legal analyst in October 2001. She is currently a professor of law at the New York Law School. Wiehl received her undergraduate degree from Barnard College in 1983 and received her Master of Arts in Literature from the University of Queensland in 1985. In addition, she earned her Juris Doctor from Harvard Law School in 1987. Lis is also the author of The 51% Minority — How Women Still Are Not Equal and What You Can Do About It. (Watch the Video) To read the rest of Lis's bio, click here.