EDITORIAL: Children drinking alcohol

MAKING parents and guardians more accountable for alcohol consumption by minors under their care seems a reasonable enough idea. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence that some adults aren't as careful or responsible as they should be when it comes to alcohol and young people.

So the suggestion by a NSW parliamentary committee that parents or guardians who do behave irresponsibly be forced into counselling probably won't meet much resistance.

But when the magnitude of the problem of under-age drinking and the many facets of alcohol abuse are considered, it would be foolish to overstate the potential importance of a clampdown on parents and guardians.

As things stand, parents and guardians are legally permitted to supply alcohol to their own children and to children entrusted to their care when the parents of those children have given consent.

The parliamentary committee wants to add the mild proviso that any such supply be made "in a manner that is consistent with responsible supervision". Relevant factors would be the child's age, whether the adult or child was drunk, whether the child was drinking alcohol with food, the amount and type of alcohol and the time over which it was supplied.

Fair enough, but debate on such a minor legal tweak shouldn't be allowed to overshadow much bigger and more important questions in the overall alcohol debate.

Newcastle Community Drug Action Team chair Tony Brown has correctly noted, for example, the large volume of unregulated online liquor promotions that are directed at teenagers.

The alcohol market in Australia is, arguably, well-saturated. Opportunities for sales growth are limited, a fact that has led to suspicions that parts of the alcohol industry - like the tobacco industry before it - may want to "groom" under-age drinkers in readiness for their anticipated future role as adult consumers.

If policymakers are genuinely concerned about this possibility then they should by all means consider enforcing greater accountability for parents and guardians. But tackling liquor advertising and promotion and considering other factors such as price and availability would bring a bigger dividend for the effort involved.

It might, however, also bring politicians and lawmakers into bruising conflict with powerful lobby groups - including political donors - whose interests lie in selling more alcohol to more people in pursuit of profit.

That would take real courage.