The government is being urged to take a tougher stance on a growing youth drinking problem by reinstating a wine duty or imposing age restrictions.
Addiction experts say more restrictions are also needed on alcohol advertisements, along with more educational campaigns aimed at people at risk. The warnings came as the government launched an action plan to reduce alcohol-related harm and prevent the rise of related diseases last week.
'The situation is turning into a so-called [youth] drinking culture,' said Professor Lam Tai-hing, director of the School of Public Health at the University of Hong Kong.
A Health Department working group on alcohol and health published an 'Action Plan to Reduce Alcohol-Related Harm in Hong Kong' on October 24.
At a seminar on alcohol and health the same day, Director of Health Dr Lam Ping-yan (pictured), said it was hoped the plan would help people make more informed choices when drinking.
Even though no one under the age of 18 can legally consume alcohol in restaurants and bars, there is no age limit on the sale of alcoholic beverages outside venues with liquor licences. So, buying alcohol in Hong Kong is easier than elsewhere in the world, as it is sold in convenience stores and supermarkets.
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'. In February 2008, taxes on wine and liquor containing a level of alcohol of less than 30 per cent were abolished.
Lawmaker Dr Leung Ka-lau of the medical constituency did not oppose the suggestion, but warned that reinstating the wine duty and imposing age restrictions would raise political challenges from both the trade and families. '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 have abundant medical evidence to show 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 [consumption].'
While alcohol sales to young people in supermarkets and convenience stores are legal, many vendors impose their own restrictions.
A 7-Eleven spokeswoman said its stores would not sell alcohol to people obviously under the age of 18 although it did not usually ask for ID. But the city's two major supermarket chains Wellcome and ParknShop refused to comment.
A police operation in August landed 12 under-age drinkers in Wan Chai Police Station. An officer said they had started boozing outside a 7-Eleven opposite the Escape nightclub.
A Hong Kong Federation of Youth Groups study in 2000 showed under-age drinking was increasing.