On April 27th 2010, Ronald and Susan Smits were arraigned in Lawrence District Court on charges of violating the state’s Social Hosting Responsibility Law. On the previous Friday night, police had broken up a teenage drinking party at their North Andover home. According to their lawyer, the Smits were upstairs, unaware that teenagers were wandering intoxicated on their lawn or that dozens of beer cans littered their basement pool table. A neighbor defended their action (or more accurately inaction) saying they would never provide alcohol to underage youth. But under the Social Host Law, a homeowner doesn’t have to provide the alcohol to be charged, just the space to drink. Another neighbor defended the Smits with the tired argument that they were simply trying to provide a safe venue for their teenage daughter to party.

These arguments have always struck a dull chord with me. The misguided notion that if parents take away the car keys and let their children drink under their roof, they will somehow keep them safe simply ignores history. In 2009 a 16-year-old girl wandered away from a drinking party in North Andover and drowned in a shallow stream. A young man died at age 16 in 2003 when he cut himself on a window then collapsed on the steps of a Haverhill home that was the site of an underage drinking party. Confiscating keys may prevent drunk driving but it doesn’t prevent drunkenness and bad thinks happen to drunk children.

It seems to set the bar of expectation pretty low for our young people to assume they can’t have a good time without consuming alcohol. I think it is this very belief in inevitability that supports a culture of underage drinking. When more than 90% of 12th graders report that alcohol is very easy or fairly easy to get, that tells me we have a problem with too many enabling adults. Adults who buy alcohol for kids. Liquor store owners who sell it to youth with fake IDs. And parents like the Smits who look the other way.

If I sound like a well-rehearsed sound bite, it’s because I’m a pediatrician. I talk to teenagers every day about this stuff. If I sound passionate about the subject, I am. Seven years ago my teenage son was hit by a drunk driver: a teenager who had been drinking beer and wine at the home of a friend.

So I will continue to beat the drum loudly, hoping someone will listen.

(For more on underage drinking, see the May/June issues of Pediatrics for Parents under ‘related links” where I have a new article on the subject.)