Hongkong: New Law Against Under-Age Alcohol Use
After years of flawed alcohol control, Hong Kong is mulling plans to tackle the alcohol problems its own policies (or lack thereof) have created. The city plans legislation to impose age limit on stores selling liquor to children.
Convenience stores and shops across Hong Kong will be banned from selling alcohol to minors under new legislation to be proposed by the government this year as it steps up efforts to tackle a rise in underage alcohol use. The law, if passed by the Legislative Council, will prohibit retailers from selling liquor to anyone under the age of 18 – the same as the current restriction on the sale of tobacco.
Failure of self-regulation
Although the city’s bars and clubs are already banned from serving or selling alcohol to minors, retailers do not have to follow the rule. Leading retail chains such as 7-Eleven have agreed voluntarily to refuse to sell liquor to anyone below 18, but staff seldom bother to check the age of customers. This is a problem that has been confirmed by various studies.
Relying on a a self-regulation scheme adopted by major retailers to stop selling alcohol to minors proved ineffective, as the South China Morning Post reported.
In an experiment, a 13-year-old schoolgirl was instructed to pose as a customer and easily bought beers and spirits in five of the seven shops she visited. The girl was not asked about her age in the five outlets – two small groceries, two 7-Eleven convenience stores, and a ParknShop supermarket. They are among major retailers that adopted the self-regulation scheme to verify the ages of customers before selling alcohol.
However, as the compliance test purchases showed, the little girl was only questioned at one 7-Eleven and one Circle K store. Once they heard she was 13, staff members said they would not sell her the liquor even if she claimed to be making the purchase “for someone else”.
The results of the test echoed studies conducted by non-governmental organisations. Last year, youth charity KELY Support Group conducted a study in which teenagers were successful in buying alcohol in most shops, regardless of location or size, after visiting 100 stores across 12 districts.
Statutory regulation urgently needed
To remedy the situation, the Food and Health Bureau announced the government is planning to introduce new legislation to restrict the sale of alcohol to anyone aged under 18.
The new move by the Food and Health Bureau comes amid criticism that Hong Kong is slipping behind other developed cities in its handling of underage alcohol use, and that it remains easy for teenagers to access alcohol.
The proposed statutory regulatory regime will cover all forms of commercial sale and supply of alcohol, including internet sale … and from the vending machine,” a spokeswoman for the bureau said, confirming the plan to table the legislation in 2017.
Sellers will also have to display signs stating that no alcohol may be sold or supplied to anyone aged below 18.
Restricting access to retailed alcohol is also one of the three ‘best buys’ recommended by the World Health Organisation for tackling the harmful use of alcohol,” a spokeswoman for the bureau explained, per South China Morning Post reports.
Easy access to alcohol for minor – massive and persistent problem
In 2014 a study conducted by the government showed that 56.2% of the city’s students had tried alcohol. 21.9% of children aged 10 or below reported they had tried alcohol. A worrying rise in binge alcohol use among students can also be seen. And alcohol-related anti-social behavior has become a problem for Hong Kong residents. Children who start using alcohol are also 4.65 times more likely than their alcohol-free peers to develop behavioural problems later in life.
Doctors have been warning for years about a worrying rise in the proportion of students with binge alcohol intake experience. Having the first sip of alcohol before 18 is associated with a higher frequency of binge alcohol use in adulthood.
The Medical Association, the Hong Kong’s largest doctors’ group, said 77% of the 1,003 people it polled supported banning the sale of alcohol to those below 18.
The Hong Kong General Chamber of Wine & Spirits has previously said it supports an age limit on the sale of alcohol, but it should be set at 16.
Weak and unscientific alcohol control creates problems
Health officials have warned about the detrimental effects of lax sales policies and the absence of an age limit for purchasing alcohol. In 2007, Hong Kong decided to lower its duties on wine and beer by 50%. And in 2008, Hong Kong removed all duties on alcohol except for spirits.
A decade later, alcohol problems are rampant.
Alcohol is cheap, even for youth. Access to alcohol in local shops is easy.
University of Hong Kong public health professor Lam Tai-hing said the city’s alcohol control measures were lax compared with those of other developed countries and cities.
On the mainland, for example, the sale of alcohol to those under the age of 18 was banned in 2006. Japan and the United States set their legal drinking age at 20 and 21 respectively. In Singapore, other than setting the legal drinking age at 18, there are additional laws to ban shops from selling alcohol in public places between 10:30pm and 7am.
Lam, a top tobacco control advocate, criticised Hong Kong for falling behind in terms of its alcohol policy, despite being a world leader when it came to smoking laws.