Underage drinking is under-recognised

TRADITIONALLY, drinking among the young has been seen as an expatriate problem. But this is no longer the case. Alcohol may be the product of Western culture, but more young locals are turning to drink and increasingly, they are under 18, the legal age ofmajority.

With no laws to stop them, it is relatively easy for those as young as nine or 10 years old to gain access to drink. As the reported presence of inebriated youngsters in Lan Kwai Fong on New Year's Eve showed, minors are unashamedly consuming in public the drinks they are able to acquire legally in any supermarket or convenience store.

It will be up to the independent inquiry conducted by Mr Justice Bokhary to determine the causes of last week's tragedy at Lan Kwai Fong. One allegation that has been made is that the numbers who were there were swelled by those who were underaged tryingto get into bars and, in many instances, succeeding. Like their elders, they were out looking for drink, either from a bar or from a convenience store or supermarket. Of course, it will be up to Mr Justice Bokhary to determine whether this was a factor in causing the dreadful loss of life. It is not our intention in any way to pre-empt the outcome of either Mr Justice Bokhary's probe or the separate police inquiry but merely to focus attention on a problem that the Lan Kwai Fong tragedy has highlighted.

What should be a matter of public concern, and one that is under-recognised is the ease with which minors can legally acquire alcoholic beverages without adult supervision and consume them anywhere, including on the streets.

The only places they are not entitled to buy or consume drink, ironically, are licensed premises. It is illegal for a licensee to serve a person under the legal age of 18. Yet not only are bars serving liquor before their licence applications have been processed - perhaps understandably given the length of the licensing procedure - but bars are only too willing to serve children under the legal age with no questions asked.

It is rightly illegal for anyone to serve a child in a bar and for any adult, including parents, to buy drinks on behalf of a minor. Why should it then be acceptable for children to buy alcohol unsupervised from supermarkets, convenience stores or other shops? Sales in such outlets are not even by the glass. A child of 10 can theoretically go into a shop and buy a bottle of spirits without even bothering to claim it is for his father.

Yet the same shops are forbidden to sell cigarettes to children under any circumstances and face fines if they do so.

It may be time for a re-examination of Hongkong's attitude to underage drinking and access to alcohol.

It should be made more difficult for shops to knowingly sell alcohol to minors. The onus should be on the sales staff to ask for proof of the purchaser's age if there is the slightest doubt. It is not good enough to assume that a customer is over 18 simply because he walks into the shop looking confident of his right to buy whatever he likes.

More onus should also be placed on bar owners and proprietors to make it difficult for minors to buy drink. The maximum penalty for serving alcohol to minors in licensed premises is currently at $5,000 fine and six months in prison. It obviously has not proven to be an effective enough deterrent if bars and restaurants are prepared to serve minors as is common practice.

There will always be underage drinking and youngsters looking for drink. However, every effort should be made to make it more difficult for them to acquire alcohol and for bars and restaurants to serve underage drinkers.

If Hongkong is concerned about the problem, then it should seriously apply the letter of the law. In the weeks ahead, this newspaper intends to carry on pressing for increased vigilance, application of the full force of the law and if necessary, a change in the law or increased penalties for those who persistently offend.