PO HAS spent nearly a third of his young life addicted to drugs, dealing in heroin and passing in and out of rehabilitation centres trying to kick his deadly habit. Unfortunately, Po's story is not uncommon. At 15, he is one of a growing number of Hong Kong children turning to drugs. A dramatic rise in narcotics abuse among youngsters has set the alarm bells ringing. Many concede the problem is out of control, and judging by the 50 per cent increase in the number of juveniles taking drugs, the territory is showing all the symptoms of a major epidemic. A loss of family values and fears about the 1997 handover have turned more youngsters to drugs. Coupled with this, higher children's allowances and a major drop in the price of heroin is gradually turning the future generation into record drug abusers. An investigation by the Sunday Morning Post reveals an underworld of drug-taking youngsters where unlimited heroin is readily available. Since Po left school three years ago, he has frequently broken the law and sold drugs to other children. He has also been arrested twice. He is only 15 years old. ''I began with soft drugs. Whenever I was upset or had nothing to do I would take five tablets,'' the teenager said. He was introduced to drugs at the age of 11 and within a year he was hooked on No. 4 heroin. ''I spent between $200 and $300 a day on heroin,'' said Po, who left school when he was 12 to work in a dai pai dong with a monthly salary of $4,500. To feed his growing addiction, he began to work for a ''big brother'', a triad boss. Po got a pager and realised the demand for drugs among children his own age was big business. ''My 'big brother' will give me 20 to 30 'tablets' [a dosage of heroin in a straw] at a time and I have to look for my own customers,'' he said. ''But I never worry about a lack of customers, my pager is beeping all the time. All the tablets can be sold within half a day.'' Each tablet costs $130. Po pockets $20 and the rest goes to his supplier. It is a classic example of a vicious circle - even when Po collects his $1,000 daily salary, most of it is spent on heroin. ''People call us 'aeroplanes' because not only do we distribute drugs but if we are caught by the police we crash. But the big brother never gets caught,'' Po said. A dealer for the last two years, Po is used to playing cat and mouse with the police but eludes them by dealing in the most public of places. ''Convenience stores are common places for a transaction to be made,'' he said. Because of the presence of surveillance cameras inside the shops, all deals are made outside. For the more regular customers, Po will meet them in parks or in the dingy corridors of housing estates. He carries the tablets in his mouth and only takes them out when a deal is made. But this method can have dire consequences. ''If we are caught by the police, we must swallow them all as quickly as possible,'' said Po, who was caught by police last year with two tablets still in his mouth after swallowing five. He made a quick recovery despite having his throat cut by straw splinters and was later admitted to the Shek Kwu Chau Treatment and Rehabilitation Centre. ALTHOUGH he had been an addict for four years, Po was shocked by the wave of children taking drugs. ''Before, my customers were mainly aged over 30. But in the past two years most of my buyers are teenagers, some are even primary school students,'' he said. Po plies his trade on the streets of Tuen Mun and says his best clients are the Vietnamese boat people from the nearby Pillar Point open camp. He has since left the rehabilitation centre and is now under the supervision of the Society for the Aid and Rehabilitation of Drug Abusers. New reports of drug use among people under 21 rose from 1,437 in 1992 to 2,170 last year, a dramatic leap of 51 per cent, and most young people admitted to abusing drugs for almost three years before being reported. For children under 17, reports to the Central Registry for Drug Abuse were up by 54 per cent to 1,147. More than 80 per cent were boys. Among the newly reported youngsters last year, three quarters had abused heroin, 20 per cent cannabis and nearly 12 per cent were on strong cough mixture. The price of heroin fell by 15 per cent last year and with a bumper crop predicted in the Golden Triangle opium-producing region this year, the price could fall further. Cough mixture is a growing problem drug, according to the Council Against Drug Abuse. A new law was introduced last year, banning over-the-counter sales of the most potent medicines. However, legislation has still not been passed for an age of consent onthe sale of alcohol from supermarkets. The council receives, on average, four calls a week from parents or schools who suspect children are taking drugs. ''It is very easy for children to get drugs in Hong Kong,'' said Pat Kane, the council's director. The Action Committee Against Narcotics concedes that juvenile drug abuse is out of control and that there are few solutions to stem the rising tide of child addicts. ''There is certainly an alarming increase in young abusers in Hong Kong,'' said the committee's chairman, Professor Chan Char-nie. ''There are probably a multitude of reasons. It could be because society is more affluent and more youngsters are able to satisfy their curiosity about drugs.'' Acknowledging the problem has hit new heights, the committee is planning to set up a new treatment centre specifically for young addicts.