Crackdown on public drinking won't deter binge drinkers

Jingan Young says while the path to binge drinking may be too easy for some, limiting where they can drink is unlikely to help solve the problem

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 March, 2013, 2:50am

A recent police raid on a well-regarded BYOB club in Hong Kong came as no surprise, following a wave of petitions to revoke applications for liquor licences, primarily in areas now undergoing gentrification. One organisation that is vocal on this issue is the Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, whose petition posters, with their large black prohibition symbols layered over distorted pint glasses, are all over the city's streets and pavements.

The path taken by the government and other public institutions to control drinking-related accidents and crime takes the form of stone-walling the consumer's choice: drinking in public.

In the same month, British Prime Minister David Cameron's plan to ban the sale of cheap alcohol, setting a minimum price of 45 pence per unit (HK$18.04 for a can of lager with 7.9 per cent alcohol content) was dropped. The ethos behind the policy was simply "where there's cheap booze, there's more binge drinking". But does where we drink directly correlate to binge drinking?

In comparison with the rest of the world, Hong Kong's alcohol consumption per capita is low. A behavioural risk factor survey last year commissioned by the Department of Health reported that among those aged 18 to 64, only 16.7 per cent were regular drinkers who drank at least one day a week while 9.8 per cent of those aged 18 to 24 engaged in a regular "binge".

Health professionals regard a "binge" as exceeding one's "daily unit" allowance (3-4 units for men, 2-3 for women); this equates to a 175 millilitre glass of wine for women, according to The rise in drinking culture among young people is undoubtedly driven by a need to emulate celebrities.

But teens aren't hanging out in louche bars; their "bar" of choice is the local 7-Eleven, where they sit and drink on the street. So if drinking in the street holds no potential risks, why should the local watering hole?

Hong Kong's liquor licensing system is a notoriously tricky, touch-and-go process. In contrast to Britain's 10-year guaranteed licence, Hong Kong bar owners may apply for only a year's licence, or less, notwithstanding a mid-term review "in the public's interest" and granted to an individual only, according to Regulation 17, if they are a "fit and proper person". Aside from rising rentals in the districts filled with corporately owned watering holes, these owners suffer under the strict restrictions and are often forced to close after a sudden withdrawal of their licence, more commonly due to residential complaints about the noise.

As the crowds descend on Hong Kong for the Rugby Sevens this weekend, the bars of Wan Chai and Lan Kwai Fong will be full of people "living it up". While this is no true reflection on our local drinking culture, it does put a spanner in the works if, as history demonstrates, it's only a matter of time.

F. Scott Fitzgerald, known to take a drink (or two) warns: "First you take a drink, then the drink takes a drink, then the drink takes you." But, one should note, he never mentioned anything about a bar.

Jingan Young is a Hong Kong-born playwright and freelance writer currently reading for a masters in creative writing at Oxford