Ventura County may join other governments in imposing civil fines on parents and other adults who have parties at which alcohol is served to minors.
The Board of Supervisors voted unanimously Tuesday to have county staff members review how a so-called social host ordinance would work and return with recommendations within three months.
The proposed ordinance would make it an infraction within the county's unincorporated areas to knowingly allow at one's residence the consumption of alcohol by individuals younger than 21.
Board Chairwoman Kathy Long said such a law is needed to end a notion that underage drinking is just a harmless rite of passage.
"This ordinance would hit the pocketbook of adults who look the other way," Long said. "We cannot, nor should we ever, look the other way."
At least nine California cities and counties already have adopted similar laws or are considering them, proponents say.
The city of Ojai gave initial approval to a social host ordinance last month, and its mayor urged supervisors to do the same.
"Ojai is four square miles," Mayor Rae Hanstad said. "To have an ordinance countywide means they can't just move the party across the street."
Adults already can be prosecuted for contributing to the delinquency of minors, but such cases are hard to prosecute, sheriff's Chief Deputy Geoff Dean said.
He said experts in teenage drug and alcohol abuse believe civil deterrents may be a more realistic curb, and that crime statistics show that 70% of sexual assaults on underage victims involve alcohol.
"I'm not naive enough to think that this will stop [underage drinking]," Dean said.
"But," he added, "it's a tool and if it stops one young woman from being raped, in my mind it is worth it."