Miércoles 26 de Julio de 2006, Ip nº 163

Keeping Tabs on Teenage Drinking
Por Fernanda Santos

CITIES and states have long fought under-age drinking, easily passing laws that make it illegal in public, but not so easily passing and enforcing laws that make it illegal on private property. The ability of minors to drink in their homes, or in the homes of others, is an old, stubborn behavior, spawning countless teenage house parties that the police have found difficult to combat.

But states and municipalities in the region have been chipping away at the problem. After years of debate, a Connecticut law targeting adults who allow drinking by minors went into effect on June 2. Also last month, Rockland County and the City of Long Beach on Long Island, while taking different approaches, started work on passing laws of their own.

On June 16, officials in Rockland County proposed a civil ordinance that would punish people as young as 16 who host such parties with fines that range from $250 to $1,000. That same week, the Long Beach City Council debated a criminal law, one that calls for stricter penalties: In addition to fines, adults who host drinking parties for minors could face 15 days in jail.

"Under-age drinking is not just a teenage problem; it's an adult problem as well, because everywhere you have a teenager drinking, chances are that you have an adult around, either selling the alcohol, providing it or allowing it to be consumed," said Judi Vining, coordinator of the Long Beach Coalition to Prevent Underage Drinking, which drafted and proposed the bill. "What we hope with this law is to give the police a tool to hold the adult responsible."

In Connecticut, individual towns over the years have passed ordinances targeting teenage drinking. The new state law makes it illegal for adults to allow under-age drinking on property they own, rent or control. Recurring offenders face up to $500 in fines and misdemeanor charges punishable by up to one year in prison. In most cases, the law also makes it illegal for minors to drink on private property. Brian Austin Jr., a state prosecutor, said that one of the main reasons for the statewide law, which goes into effect Oct. 1, "was to provide uniformity to the way safe-drinking rules are enforced."

A 1987 law in New Jersey also goes after the adults who host drinking parties for minors or buy alcohol for a party. They can be arrested and, if convicted, spend up to six months in jail or pay a fine of up to $1,000. The law does not make it illegal for minors to drink on private property. The Legislature tried to fix that in 2000, approving a bill that allows cities and towns to bar minors from possessing alcohol on private property. The National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependency, an advocacy group, estimated that 230 of the state's 567 municipalities have enacted such a ban.

In New York, a 1985 law makes it illegal for an adult to give alcohol to a minor on private property, but it does not prohibit a minor from drinking it. So the adults hosting a party can be arrested in their homes, but the teenagers who are drinking there cannot. According to Lt. William Gravina of the Ramapo police, if minors are caught drinking on private property, under state law the police can do little beyond calling the parents.

He said another weakness in the law was that someone had to see the adult serving the minors and then be willing to come forward as a witness.

In all, 32 states have adopted some type of law targeting adults who serve alcohol to minors at their homes, the so-called social host liability law, according to Mothers Against Drunk Driving. In 1999, Minnesota enacted one of the country's strictest laws, making it a felony to give alcohol to anyone under 21 who gets drunk and causes death, or dies or suffers serious injury, as a result.

The municipal law being proposed in Long Beach is modeled after legislation San Diego enacted in 2003 that made it illegal for adults to host parties on their property if three or more minors are present and any are drinking, Ms. Vining said.

The Rockland County ordinance was first proposed in the Town of Ramapo by a group of parents, students and police officers who came together after the death of 17-year-old Emily Bushkin in a car crash in 2001. Emily, the car's teenage driver and another girl who was riding with them had been drinking before a pep rally at Suffern High School.

The group, the Rescuing Our Youth Coalition, which works to teach children about the dangers of alcohol and drug abuse, proposed the ordinance to county officials earlier this year, after realizing that any action against people who host drinking parties would have little impact if it did not take effect countywide.

The Rockland County executive, C. Scott Vanderhoef, embraced the idea and proposed the ordinance to the Legislature. "Parties where minors are served alcohol have ended in tragedy time and time again," Mr. Vanderhoef said. "With graduation season and summer vacation upon us, it's important that we let parents and children alike know that under-age drinking will not be tolerated."

While the ordinance targets people 16 and older, Lieutenant Gravina said the intent was to impose penalties on the teenagers who host drinking parties.

"This ordinance addresses the gaps that exist in the state law because it specifically addresses something the state law doesn't address, which is the teenagers who host parties in their own homes, in many cases while their parents are away," he said. "If teenagers host a party, if they organize it, they'll be held responsible for it."

In addition to the person who is hosting the party, parents and siblings who are of drinking age can also be held liable if they know a drinking party will happen at their home and do nothing to stop it, according to the proposed ordinance.

"The goal of this law is not to punish kids," said Stacey Starr, the president of the coalition. "What we're really trying to get kids and their parents to understand is that it's not cool to drink."

Under-age drinking remains stubbornly prevalent, especially among affluent white teenagers. According to a 2003 survey by the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, 21 percent of white youths between 12 and 20 years old reported being heavy drinkers, followed by American Indians (20 percent), Latinos (17 percent), blacks (10 percent) and Asians (8 percent).

Although the proportion of high school seniors who report having had five or more drinks in the previous two weeks has decreased every year since 1998, nearly 30 percent of the survey's participants said they still drink at those levels.

The Long Beach bill needs City Council approval before it becomes law. In Rockland County, there will be a public hearing within the next 60 days, and the Legislature will then vote on the proposal.

Ms. Starr said: "My kids will say to me, 'There's absolutely nothing you can do to stop kids from drinking.' You know what? I agree with that. It's like saying that there's nothing you can do to stop 4-year-olds from running on the street, but at least I can tell them that if they run, there will be a consequence."

"The very nature of adolescence is risk-taking; that's what makes them so exciting to be around," Ms. Starr said. "But what they have to learn — and what we're trying to teach them with this ordinance — is that there are acceptable and unacceptable ways to do that."


  30/06/2006. The New York Times.