Thursday, July 17, 2008

Westchester Guardian.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Catherine Wilson, Bureau Chief
Northern Westchester

The County’s Proposed
Social Host Law

On Tuesday, June 16, 2008 the Westchester County Board of Legislators held a public hearing to address a proposed Social Host law. This proposed law, as drafted by the Board’s Legislative Committee, would prohibit and establish fines for “hosting, allowing, entertaining, organizing, permitting, or ‘suffering’ a party, gathering, or event where minors are present and alcoholic beverages are consumed by any minor”.

In its “legislative intent” supporting the law, the Legislative Committee finds that “underage drinking is a significant societal problem that has
generated widespread concern in Westchester County” without noting where it obtains its statistics, if any, to support the extent of the problem or its definition of “significant”.

The Legislative Committee acknowledges that the New York State Legislature has already acted to “proscribe the unlawful giving, selling, and
possession of alcohol in relation to minors”. Despite the existence of these laws, the County Board believes there is an additional need, however unsubstantiated by them, for a law to regulate the situation where a person who is twenty-one years old or older knowingly allows the consumption of alcohol by a minor in their own home or property.

In short, should this law pass, a parent can now run afoul of the law by serving a glass of wine to their own teenager at dinner in their own home. The Legislative Committee fails to acknowledge in its determination that there are many cultures where wine is not prohibited and is seen as a necessary part of the enjoyment of a family dinner or celebration, or religious sacrament. The County Board hearings did not address the cultural and religious aspects of alcohol and how their proposal will infringe upon these rights.

Many local families of Italian descent make their own wine. Are these families now to be arrested because their teenager, who has safely participated in this family tradition for years, tastes this year’s batch? And what of a twenty-year old prospective bride or groom? Are
they not to take a celebratory glass of champagne in their own home within the safety of their own families?

The hearings did not acknowledge that not all uses of alcohol are detrimental to a child’s well-being – what of a parent giving a child a sample drink to taste so they will be able to recognize the taste of alcohol and therefore know if they’ve been duped at a party? The hearings
also did not address the negative impact of this proposed law.

When the state laws were passed to prevent the sale and distribution of alcohol to minors, some teenagers turned to cough medicine to get the
same alcoholic high since cough medicines list alcohol as a major ingredient.

Is the next step to prohibit parents from administering cough medications to children since they contain alcohol? By proposing this Social Host Law, the County Board is really saying “We don’t trust parents to do their jobs. We know better than you do.” Given the Board’s recent track record with their own finances and their approval of the Board of Election’s contested site in Ardsley, many local parents might
resent having the County Board telling them how to raise their children.

A college age student can vote, get married, serve on juries, write a will, hold public office, sign a contract, operate a business including hiring employees; conduct their lives as the adults they are, and be potentially called upon to die for our country. Yet that same student, if under
the age of 21, cannot legally toast their spouse at their own wedding, share a bottle of wine at a family dinner, or celebrate a family event with a glass of champagne.

That same student was sent off to college by parents who probably taught him how to drive, how to cook and do laundry, how to ride a bike, ski, swim, ice-skate, play an instrument, tell time, read, balance a checkbook, and all of the other skills he will need to survive. Except one. How to drink correctly. According to Professor David Hanson of the State University of New York, “Inexperienced drinkers become
intoxicated with much less alcohol than do experienced drinkers. They are more likely to have traffic accidents after consuming small amounts of alcohol”.

When a teenager is not educated in the logistical and physical aspects of drinking, they do not realize that the effects of alcohol on their systems are determined by their gender and weight and how much they have had to drink.

Inexperienced drinkers will not know how to properly mix a drink – they will not know how much a jigger of alcohol is if they’ve never used or seen one. Teenagers overestimate the amount of alcohol to be used in a mixed drink. A Pina Colada whipped up by a novice bartender could have the alcoholic kick of four, increasing the risks since the drinker thinks they are within safe limits – after all, they only had one
drink! Further, inexperienced drinkers do not know that many alcoholic drinks do not have an alcoholic taste at all, such as a Long Island Iced Tea, or that mixing certain alcoholic beverages, such as the traditional ‘shot and a beer’, increases the chances of becoming sick and getting alcohol poisoning.

And just because the drink has a cute-sounding name and comes with an umbrella and in a pretty glass or is a “girl’s drink”, doesn’t mean it won’t pack a lethal punch. All of which a teenager needs to be taught before they leave home for college. Even if they don’t plan on ever drinking, chances are, other students around them will.

Where can our youth learn this information so they or their friends won’t fall victim to the perils of alcohol abuse? Not in the current alcohol education programs. Most local schools have D.A.R.E. programs – the national Drug Abuse Resistance Education program. However, as the name implies, this program concentrates on illegal substances and their effects and how to resist peer pressure.

But nowhere in the D.A.R.E. program are students educated what alcohol actually tastes like so they can recognize it when served alcohol
either knowingly or unknowingly. The D.A.R.E. programs are successful in scaring children about the effects of drugs but tend to lump drugs and alcohol into the same categories without recognizing that most of the population who drink, do so responsibly. The D.A.R.E. materials actually state that “our goal is to arm our students with enough information and resources so that they will avoid experimentation with legal
and illicit drugs – including alcohol and tobacco” implying that a child’s parent who drinks a glass of wine with dinner is committing a crime!

If there is indeed a “significant” underage drinking problem locally, according to the experts on this issue, laws such as this proposed Social Host law are not the solution and may be, in fact, causing an even bigger problem – college binge drinking.

According to federal statistics recently released by the Associated Press, college drinking deaths are on the rise. This despite the fact that all 50 states have laws prohibiting the sale and distribution of alcohol to minors and the recent implementation of Social Host laws in many
municipalities. The Associated Press reported that these deaths are primarily due to ‘binge drinking’ – where students save their drinks up and drink them all at once. The AP discovered that many of the victims had “an average blood alcohol level of 0.40 percent, or five times
the legal limit for driving. In every case, friends knew the victim was drunk and put him or her to bed to sleep it off”.

Professor Hanson’s research of cultures where alcohol is used in family life, such as Italians, Jews, and Greeks, has revealed three elements for successful education of children with regards to alcohol:

1. Alcohol is seen as neutral, neither a poison nor a magic substance.

2. The act of drinking is viewed as normal. When there is no social pressure to drink, there is also no tolerance for abusive drinking.

3. Education about alcohol starts early and starts in the home. Hanson believes that some of the contributing factors to teenage drinking is the belief that “everybody is doing it”. He states that “the exaggeration of alcohol abuse tends to create a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more young people believe heavy drinking occurs, the more heavily they end up drinking in order to conform”. He also believes that the current legislative attitude of zero-tolerance towards college-age drinking contributes towards rebellion and rule-breaking by those students. Hanson proposes a gradual access to alcohol for students under parental supervision, much like the graduated driving laws. He asks “why not teach responsible drinking under mature supervision rather than leave these young adults to experiment on their own”?

Professor Hanson proposes several ways for parents to effectively educate their children about alcohol:

• Be good role models;

• Convey appropriate attitudes like not laughing at intoxication;

• Teach children that it is the abuse of alcohol that is the problem;

• Don’t drink and drive or ride with anyone who has been drinking;

• Don’t use machinery, climb ladders, operate boats, Jet Skis, when drinking;

• Never mix alcohol with medications or with other alcoholic beverages; Hanson also encourages parents to teach children:

• How to refuse a drink politely;

• How to ‘lose’ drinks that have been forced on them;

• How to prepare or order “mocktails” (drinks that look alcoholic);

• What constitutes a standard drink – 12 oz of beer, 5 oz of wine, 1 ½ oz of distilled spirits;

• Only time sobers a body, not coffee or cold air;

• Never drink on an empty stomach; food will slow alcohol absorption;

• Only one drink per hour;

• Vomiting when drunk can be fatal;

• Never drink for the sake of drinking or as part of a game or contest;

• Carbonated drinks will get alcohol into the bloodstream faster;

• Be wary of changes in your mood or perceptions when drinking;

Patricia Weems of the Fairgrounds Civic Association in Greenburgh echoed the need for education at the County hearing. Weems noted to the
legislators that many of her friends in college who had never drank before ended up alcoholics because of their lack of knowledge about alcohol. Weems asked the legislators “If we have to put money somewhere, let’s start with education”. The Social Host law will impose fines upon any adult found guilty of serving alcohol to minors in their homes. Weems asked “will fines stop teens from drinking? I doubt it!”

In comparison, another speaker at the hearing, told of a friend who was killed by a drunk driver and called for the proposed fines to be doubled and to reveal the offenders’ names publicly. Several area parents and civic leaders from Larchmont and Ossining echoed their
sentiments supporting the need for this legislation. However, while Assemblywoman Sandy Galef informed the legislators that, “This is a piece of legislation that will help to make sure our youth are protected,” she also noted that the state is currently considering the same legislation.

Indeed, the proposed law allows for the County to void it completely “on the day that federal or statewide legislation goes into effect”. So why incur the expense of pursuing this law when the state representatives are acknowledging that they are already doing so? One serious issue the hearing did not address is the potential for abuse of this law. An abusive parent in a bitter custody hearing could now use this law
as a legal weapon against an unsuspecting ex-spouse. Neighborhood battles could escalate – a local resident could turn in any neighbor they see just giving their child a sip of wine at dinner on their deck. There are still many issues to be addressed here before this proposal can, or should, become law.

The next hearing on this proposal is scheduled for August 11th. Anyone wishing to obtain information on this legislation, or any other, can find this on the Westchester County Board of Legislators website at

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