The Food and Health Bureau has proposed amending existing laws to prohibit the sale of alcohol to people under aged 18.
Currently, there are no laws in Hong Kong prohibiting the sale and supply of liquor to minors. The Dutiable Commodities (Liquor) Regulations prohibit the drinking – but not purchase – of alcohol by minors on licensed premises. Some businesses voluntarily restrict the sale of alcohol to minors.
The bureau proposes requiring business operators to refuse the sale of alcohol if the purchaser fails to prove that they are at least 18 years old in cases of face-to-face distribution.
But businesses will not be legally required to check the age of every purchaser, because the bureau does not want to “overburden the trade.” Salespersons are only encouraged to ask for proof of age if they suspect the purchasers are underage.
The bureau said it will not introduce a new licensing system for the sale and supply of alcohol to minors.
However, in cases of remote distribution such as e-commerce, the bureau proposes to impose a legal requirement on businesses to require customers to declare that they are at least 18 years old before making a purchase, such as by providing a check box for the customers to confirm that they are not minors.
The bureau also proposes to ban the sale of alcohol from all vending machines. It said the measure is on par with the existing tobacco control regime.
The amendments will come into effect if they are passed in the legislature. The government will table the proposal in the current legislative session.
The bureau identifies underage drinking as a pressing public health issue that places young people at greater risk of physical, sexual and emotional harm.
“Adolescence is a key time of behavioural change and brain development. Alcohol consumption during this period adversely affects these developmental changes,” it said in a document recently submitted to the legislature. “Furthermore, young people develop dependence on alcohol more quickly than adults.”
It added that the prevalence of local underage drinking is “alarming,” even though the total alcohol per capita consumption in Hong Kong is relatively low compared to other developed economies.
According to a 2013 survey commissioned by the Department of Health and conducted by the University of Hong Kong, 43.5 per cent of primary 4 to primary 6 students and 62.4 per cent of secondary school students surveyed have consumed alcohol. HKU surveyed a total of around 3,900 students.
Half of the primary school respondents said they first drank alcohol before age 8, while 20.7 per cent of the secondary school respondents said they first drank alcohol before age 7.
The major source of alcohol for the underage drinkers was from parents, the survey found. Around 10 per cent of primary school respondents and 27.4 per cent of secondary school respondents bought alcohol themselves.
Meanwhile, a 2016 social experiment conducted by NGO KELY Support Group found that only 12 per cent of 112 supermarkets or convenience stores surveyed requested the age of underage volunteers who attempted to buy beer from them.
The young volunteers were able to buy beer in 87.9 per cent of 33 supermarkets and 71.4 per cent of 56 convenience stores.
The government met with the wine and retail industries, the medical sector, district councillors and other stakeholders earlier this year. It received 100 written submissions from them on the proposal, with 78 of them supporting the proposal and none opposing it.