Clearer heads

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 December, 2011, 12:00am


Memories are the dramas of our minds, the bits of our past that are unforgettable because of particular action, suspense or sadness. The day a bar owner in Australia chased me from the pool room of his pub for underage drinking is one of those occasions. I had been going there after school on Fridays with older friends just for the game, not the alcohol. Somehow, he had caught on that I was a few years below the minimum drinking age of 18 and, in the flick of a school tie, he was bellowing and hollering and threatening that if I showed my face on his premises again, he would call the police.

It was such a harrowing experience that I did not venture into a pub again until I had actually turned 18. The memory flickered back recently when my 17-year-old son phoned to tell me that he would be home from a birthday party later than planned as he was helping a friend who had had too much to drink.

I am not so out of touch with what he does that I do not know that he hangs around bars when he goes out. Most of his friends are a year or two older, so it should be a given that if they are in a bar or club, so is he.

That he is 183cm tall and weighs 90kg helps him avoid attention, of course. But I am sure that the clincher for bar staff is that he is not Chinese. The bars in Wan Chai and Lan Kwai Fong have a sprinkling - sometimes a smothering - of non-Chinese students who are plainly underage drinkers, two or even more years younger than my son. It is as if the law on alcohol consumption is about ethnicity, not age.

Intrigued and perhaps nostalgic, I asked my son whether he or his friends had ever been run out of a bar. No, was his response, and sensing my purpose, he quickly added that he only ever ordered soft drinks, which was not illegal. That may be the case, but there are no laws preventing a person under 18 buying a beer from a supermarket or a convenience store and then drinking it outside. Yes, he was well aware of that as well, he smirked.

There can be no smart-aleck comebacks when it comes to gambling. Hong Kong Jockey Club staff are adept at spotting under-18s crossing their thresholds and promptly ask for identity cards. Twice, this has happened with me - once when my son tried to follow me in and another when I absent-mindedly asked him to buy a Mark 6 ticket for me. As a Hong Kong institution, it has to have excellent policing to set an example and keep controversy from its door.

Bars and supermarkets are a different proposition. Checking the identity of every customer on mere suspicion is not in their financial interests, nor is it feasible at busy times. Supermarkets and convenience stores, not covered by regulations, need worry only if they have a sense of obligation to reduce underage drinking.

Hong Kong's lax attitude to underage drinking is at odds with a general movement elsewhere in the world to raise the drinking age. Lobbyists and pressure groups have produced studies linking alcohol to a rising incidence of teenage driver deaths, violence and drug abuse. Their model is the US, where the drinking age was lifted to 21 in 1984. They are moves Hong Kong should explore, but a first step of more pressing urgency should be to stop shops from selling alcohol to people under the age of 18.

Peter Kammerer is a senior writer at the Post