As the world continues to be homebound, communities across Hawaiʻi are looking closer at how we protect everyone, especially our most vulnerable, while at home. Our homes have served as a safe environment protecting us from a global pandemic; while for many, the coronavirus lockdown has spotlighted the ongoing crises of child abuse and domestic abuse. For the Maui Coalition for Drug-Free Youth, we believe that protecting the home environment is more important now than ever. 

Adult alcohol use has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic (1). This comes as no surprise to many; drinking has long been a vice or coping mechanism for dealing with stress, which has been in abundance this year. But what have the impacts been like on our youth, and how can we prevent high rates of underage drinking? Maui County is considering a piece of legislation to prevent this called a social host ordinance. Social host ordinances have been enacted in hundreds of communities across the country in the past two decades. Communities adopt these ordinances to combat high rates of underage drinking, and to prevent the traumas associated with alcohol use: car accidents, sexual assault, domestic violence, accidents, addiction, homicide and suicide. 

There are variations in social host ordinances across the country. What makes a strong ordinance, and what do we need in Maui County? The Maui Coalition for Drug-Free Youth has been conducting community-based research since 2017 to answer these questions. A 2018-2019 community-based survey of 449 Maui youth revealed two key pieces of information: parties were the most common place youth drank, often in excess, and with many others; and the consequences were severe, with youth experiencing the traumatizing effects of physical fights, sexual assaults, arrests, and alcohol poisoning. According to prevention theory and public health best practice, social host ordinances are most effective at preventing large underage drinking parties when they have penalties that are swift, certain and severe enough to cause the responsible person to modify their behavior to prevent underage drinking on their property.  Civil or administrative ordinances and strict liability are key to enabling law enforcement to issue citations that are swift, certain and fair. Social host ordinances are about letting the responsibility fall on the legally responsible person for the property, instead of handing out punitive punishments to youth who are enabled by adults to break underage drinking laws.

Underage drinking causes or contributes to a range of physical, academic, and social problems. Far from a harmless pastime, alcohol is the leading contributor to morbidity and mortality in youth(2). It bears repeating: alcohol use is a major contributor to the top four causes of adolescent death (motor vehicle crashes, accidents, homicide, and suicide) in the United States. 

For youth who avoid immediate consequences, underage drinking still predisposes them for later problems, including heavier use of alcohol and other drugs. Individuals who report initiation of alcohol use before age 15 were four times more likely to meet criteria for alcohol dependence and twice as likely to meet criteria for alcohol abuse than those who began drinking after age 21. (4) To put it another way, we can halve a young person’s likelihood of abusing alcohol by keeping them off it until the legal age of consumption. 

A dangerous misperception is that allowing youth to drink at home teaches young people how to “handle” alcohol responsibly. House parties are seen as a training ground, where alcohol-related mistakes can be made early, without high-stakes consequences. From national and local data, we know that this is simply not reality, and underage drinking is never safe. Some of the worst consequences happen at house parties, or shortly after leaving. 

Social host ordinances are important because the families of victims, community surveys and youth listening sessions across Maui tell us that house parties are not safe havens. When youth are provided a house to drink at, car crashes, sexual assault, and violence often follow. Our youth do need an outlet for stress, and they do need to celebrate and socialize. But we do them a great disservice by condoning house parties. Social host ordinances provide an enforceable policy to change the norm around underage drinking at house parties, and prevent tragedy. 

We still do not know what next year will bring, but we know that we should not miss this opportunity to make house parties safer and to make the home a healthier environment. To learn more about the social host ordinance and how to take action, please contact andrea@hiphi.org.