link to The Times
Do not tar everyone with the same brush - MP insists
The purpose of making underage drinking a crime was not to send children to prison but to deter them from drinking. This also enabled the courts to impose participation in rehabilitation programmes including community work and counselling. - Tonio Borg
Nationalist MP Michael Gonzi yesterday expressed concern in Parliament that a Bill on the consumption of alcohol by minors made no distinction between first-time offenders wilting under the pressure of their peers or their exams and binge drinkers.
Dragging first offenders to court could be counter-productive Dr Gonzi said, speaking as a family doctor and a parent of two teenagers.
Other speakers in the debate insisted that the Bill needed to be extended to children found to have been drinking in private places which, in terms of legislation, could include clubs.
The sitting was opened by Home Affairs Minister Tonio Borg, who said he was sceptical of figures showing Malta to be one of the worst countries in as far as alcohol consumption by minors was concerned. Still, it would be a mistake to claim that no problem of alcoholism existed.
To date it was illegal in Malta to sell alcohol to a minor, but it was not a crime for anyone under 16 to possess and drink alcohol. Nor was it illegal for any adult to buy an alcoholic drink and hand it to a minor.
In terms of the Bill and in line with suggestions by NGOs, it would now become a crime for anyone under 16 to possess or consume alcohol.
People supplying or serving alcohol to minors, even in the streets or any public places, would also be committing a crime and become liable for penalties ranging between Lm100 and Lm500 for a first offence and between Lm500 and Lm1,000 for repeat offences.
Dr Borg observed that some had argued that the minimum drinking age should be raised to 18 from 16. This was a source of debate across the world but the government felt that, at least for now, one should first close existing loopholes in legislation and consolidate, more so since no minimum drinking age existed so far.
The purpose of making underage drinking a crime was not to send children to prison but to deter them from drinking. This also enabled the courts to impose participation in rehabilitation programmes including community work and counselling.
Dr Borg said this legislation was just one instrument in the mechanism being used by the Social Policy Ministry to beat the problem of alcoholism and alcohol consumption by minors. He had every confidence in young people and in the ability of the vast majority of them to beat the temptation to drink.
Referring to complaints by some MPs that the Bill said nothing about parents' responsibilities, Dr Borg said the Criminal Code already laid down that a court may condemn the parents when a criminal offence was committed by a minor. Those provisions would apply, for minors of whatever age. Anglu Farrugia, opposition spokesman for justice, said surveys showing alcohol consumption by minors was a concern. This problem was rooted in family upbringing. This Bill tackled drinking in public places, which included places of entertainment, but one should consider extending it to a situation where children were found to be under the influence of alcohol after drinking in private places. In cases such as underage drinking, one had to be cruel to be kind, more so as drinking often led to other crimes or abuse.
Legislation and its proper enforcement helped reduce abuse. One could see the positive impact which breathalyser tests had had on the number of traffic accidents.
On the responsibility of parents, Dr Farrugia said that according to the Criminal Code if a child aged between nine and 12 committed a crime, the parents could be arraigned for not giving sufficient attention to the child. This was not specifically included in this Bill. It did not make sense for parents to argue that they could not control their children. If parents took all the necessary precautions, minors would not abuse from alcohol in 80 per cent of the cases.
Nationalist MP Michael Gonzi said that he agreed with the provisions of the Bill banning the provision of alcohol to minors, but he was concerned that although this Bill was meant to deter binge drinking, the net could also drag to court first-time abusers who might have abused because of problems at home or in their personal life.
Speaking as a medical doctor and a parent of two teenagers, Dr Gonzi said that in many cases, children succumbed to drink following peer pressure or stress. Many were burdened by study, the tension of exams and low self-esteem. In some cases their abuse was a form of protest, a message to their parents. Therefore, taking such first offenders to court, as this Bill provided, could be the wrong way of doing things. People who resorted to drink as a protest often managed to recover, do well in their exams and move on. Would court action and subsequent punishment help in such cases?
Dr Gonzi said that two surveys taken over a period of four years showed that under-age drinking had not increased significantly. Could this be a sign that abuse prevention campaigns were paying off?
He felt that prevention campaigns were actually the area one should especially focus on. And while action was being taken to tackle this problem on a group basis, individual attention was the most effective. At the same time the police needed to be well resourced to stop the actual supply of alcohol to minors.
He had been to Paceville and seem hundreds of young people, most of them about 13 years old, drinking and holding bottles, pitchers and glasses in their hands. There were only four policemen on site and they did not speak to anyone.
It was also important that adults set the example. Why was it that the impression was given that events could only be successful if there was an open bar? How could parents convince their children it was wrong to drink if they drank themselves?
Dr Gonzi said the law should not put everyone in the same basket. It would be better if the police was given the option to analyse the circumstances of each case and, where justified, bypass the courts and refer cases to family doctors. Otherwise there could even be situations where when a minor fainted because of drink no one would rush to help for fear of being summoned as a witness.
Dr Gonzi said he would like to see effective enforcement of provisions against the supply of alcohol but the other provisions of the Bill should be reflected upon. Young people should not be pushed underground as their problems would double.
Labour MP Silvio Parnis said it was hard to be a youth in today's world. He too felt there should be more effective campaigns on the harmful effects of drinking, especially on the young.
Indeed, the problem of drink was not restricted to teenagers burdened by exams, but also concerned old people who resorted to the bottle to get over their loneliness. These, too, were people who needed help.
Mr Parnis insisted that young people should be made more aware of the human values and the beauty of life and teachers should be encouraged to report any sign of problems affected children aged as young as 12 so that it could be nipped in the bud.
Joe Brincat warned that the Bill had a loophole in that it was restricted to public places. Clubs, for example, were considered as being private, belonging only to their members. Parties among young people held in private homes were also not covered.
It should not be permissible to serve alcohol to young people, even in a private residence which was not the residence of the minor. At the actual residence of the minor the parents or guardians were responsible.
Dr Brincat also referred to the definition of alcohol as any liquid or compound, and said that "any liquid" should be followed by, "even if diluted".
Nationalist MP Franco Galea said that although the Bill was good, he felt focus was being placed on the consumption of alcohol but not on what was leading children to consume alcohol.
What kind of children were drinking? What environment did they live in? What kind of company did they hang out with?
It was easy to point fingers at children but who was responsible for them? How much quality time were parents spending with them? How many were giving their children a bad example by smoking and drinking in their presence? Parents should also be made to shoulder responsibility if their children were caught drinking.
He also felt that local councils should organise events where young people could spend their time. Mr Galea also felt that establishments which served alcohol to minors should be liable to have their licence withdrawn.