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Oct 30, 2014 07:14 PM EDT

Underage Drinking Could Be Thwarted By ‘Social Host’ Laws

Strict "social host" laws could significantly reduce underage drinking in a community, according to a recent study

Many states and local communities have passed social host laws, which hold adults responsible when underage drinkers imbibe on their property. The details of the laws vary, however, and research has been mixed as to whether they actually keep kids from drinking.

For the study, researchers focused on 50 communities in California, half of which had social host laws. They found that teenagers were less likely to report drinking at parties when they lived in communities with particularly strong social host laws.

"It does look like there is less-frequent drinking among teenagers in cities with stringent social host laws, even when other city and youth characteristics that are related to underage drinking are controlled for," Mallie Paschall, lead researcher on the study, said in a statement. "So these laws might be an effective strategy for reducing hazardous drinking."

"Strong" social host laws have some key provisions, according to Paschall: They specifically target underage drinking; there is a civil penalty (such as a hefty fine) that's swiftly administered; and property owners are held responsible, even if they claim they didn't know about the underage drinking.

But enforcement is necessary for the laws to work. If adults don't know they could be held responsible for underage drinking, the policies won't be much of a deterrent, he said.

However, researchers said the findings indicate a correlation and not necessarily a direct effect of the laws.

"These findings are preliminary. We can't say that social host laws definitely prevent kids from drinking at parties," Paschall said.

In future studies, the researchers plan to look at rates of teen drinking before and after the passage of social host laws to get a better idea of whether the policies themselves have an impact.

The findings were published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.

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