Monday December 10, 2012

It’s illegal to serve or provide alcohol to anyone under 21 years of age. If you don’t know this, you’ve probably been living on Mars. If you do know and still think it’s OK, then you may want to book yourself a ticket on the next shuttle leaving Earth. Providing alcohol to anyone under the legal drinking age can land you in a galaxy of trouble and there’s an army of "storm troopers" in our community positioned to enforce the laws around underage drinking. They have good reason for their focus on enforcement. A recent U.S. National Survey on Drug Use and Health found that Vermont has the highest rate of underage drinking at 37 percent. Know this, if you make the wrong decisions around providing alcohol to minors, you’ll wish you’d purchased that ticket outta here.

According to Vermont State Attorney Tracy Shriver, a person who sells or furnishes alcohol to someone underage will be fined a minimum of $500 and up to $2,000, imprisoned up to two years, or both. A person who "enables consumption," creating a direct and immediate opportunity for the minor to consume, faces the same penalties. This means if you allow a person underage to consume alcohol on your property, even if you didn’t provide the actual beverage, you will be accountable. If you sell, furnish or enable the consumption by a minor, and that minor operates a motor vehicle on a public highway and then causes serious bodily injury or death to him/herself or another person, the penalty becomes five years, a fine of up to $10,000, plus court costs, or both.

Compounding the legal consequences are the civil liabilities, which may follow. Most parents/homeowners are aware that underage drinking parties occur and some parents may permit such gatherings at their residence out of need for a sense of control; a feeling that it’s safer to have it happen under supervision in their own home rather than somewhere else. While this thought process might seem logical at the time, many parents/homeowners fail to understand their exposure to civil liabilities and the subsequent lawsuit which may follow as a result of third-party property damage, injuries or death. Depending on the circumstances of the incident a homeowners/renters insurance policy may not provide liability and defense coverage for social hosting and negligent supervision. Social hosting resulting in a conviction may also cause an increase in insurance premiums or the cancellation of homeowners and auto policy coverage. A homeowner without homeowners insurance could find themselves in trouble with their mortgage company. If you purchase, provide or pour alcohol for a minor you’re putting your life savings, your house, and your other assets are at risk.

Recently, two publicized incidents in Windham County involving adults hosting underage drinking parties were brought to the attention of the police as a result of teenagers leaving the party and getting into car accidents on their way home. While parents may feel they have control in their home there are many potential risks that are beyond their control. Teens under the influence of alcohol make bad choices such as leaving the party and driving while intoxicated and initiating physical fights over disagreements. Adults who provide alcohol to a minor send a message that it’s OK to drink. They also send a message that they are above the law and can pick and choose what laws they feel are just. Adults may think they can teach young people how to drink responsibly but the truth is, issues of personal development, peer pressure and societal influence often complicate the responsibility of drinking alcohol.

So what can parents do? Consider it fashionable to know where your child is at all times. It’s OK to call other parents and check out who will be around, what’s happening and if there will be supervision. When dropping your child off at a friend’s home, introduce yourself. Talk to your kids and their friends about alcohol and drugs. Call other parents if you have concerns or simply want to establish a norm of communicating. Visit www.ParentUpVT.org for tools and resources to help parents talk to their children about the dangers of underage drinking and refuse to provide alcohol to minors. The risks of providing alcohol to minors are significant and the consequences may be permanent. Remember, it’s the parents who host that lose the most.

Shannon Albritton is the communications coordinator for the Brattleboro Area Prevention Coalition and "Matters of Substance" is a collaborative column of the BAPC, a comprehensive community effort to prevent and reduce alcohol, tobacco and other drug abuse in Windham Southeast area. For more information or to join our prevention efforts, please visit BrattleboroAreaPreventionCoalition.org or call802-257-2175.