Call to crack down on drinking by youths
Helene Franchineau, Patsy Moy and Jennifer Ngo
Doctors and experts are warning that drinking among young Hongkongers is getting out of control.
They are urging the government to get tough by bringing back taxes on wine and light liquor or setting a minimum age for drinking.
'The situation is turning into a ... [youth] drinking culture,' said Professor Lam Tai-hing, director of the school of public health at the University of Hong Kong.
Addiction experts say alcohol adverts should be cut back and more educational campaigns for people at risk are needed.
The warnings came as the government launched a plan last week to reduce alcohol-related harm and prevent related diseases.
Dr Lam Ping-yan, director of the Health Department, said he hoped the plan would help people make better choices when drinking.
No one under 18 can legally drink alcohol in restaurants and bars, which require liquor licences. But there is no minimum age for buying alcoholic drinks outside such places. So buying alcohol in Hong Kong, where it is sold in convenience stores and supermarkets, is easier than in most countries.
Lam Tai-hing said raising the legal drinking age could be one solution, but 'the most effective way to curb the youth drinking problem would be to raise the taxes and educate the public about the risks associated with alcohol, such as cancer'.
Taxes on wine and liquor containing less than 30 per cent alcohol were removed in 2008.
Lawmaker Dr Leung Ka-lau, who represents the medical profession, was not against bringing back the taxes, but warned that the liquor industry would challenge that.
He said families would oppose a minimum age for buying alcohol. 'It's very popular in Hong Kong for parents to send their children to supermarkets to buy them beer,' Leung said.
'Also, we should differentiate tobacco from alcohol, as we now [know] the health hazards brought by smoking, such as second-hand smoke. But the harm caused by alcohol to young people is more behavioural than an immediate health risk, making it difficult to justify a new law on alcohol.'
Although alcohol sales to young people in supermarkets and convenience stores are legal, some vendors have their own restrictions.
A spokeswoman for 7-Eleven said its stores would not sell alcohol to people obviously under the age of 18 although the shops did not usually ask for their customers' identity cards. But Wellcome and ParknShop, the city's two biggest supermarket chains, refused to comment.
A police operation in August landed 12 under-age drinkers in Wan Chai Police Station. An officer said they had started drinking outside a 7-Eleven opposite a nightclub.
A Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups study in 2000 showed under-age drinking was increasing.