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Herald on Sunday editorial: Drunk boy a disgrace to us all

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This was child abuse of a particularly irresponsible kind, not so very different from violent harm.
This was child abuse of a particularly irresponsible kind, not so very different from violent harm.

Words can hardly express the harm inflicted on a 9-year-old boy in Hamilton this week by someone who gave him enough alcohol to get very drunk. If it was the first time this had happened to him - and his mother says it was - it would have been a far more confusing and frightening experience than even it is for someone old enough to know what alcohol does.

A teenager who recorded the boy's condition at a skate park and posted it on the net may have done some good if the exposure prompts the police, child welfare agencies and legislators to take action.

This was child abuse of a particularly irresponsible kind, not so very different from violent harm. When the boy's head stopped spinning and his vision cleared and his horizon was horizontal again he could be left with lasting damage. The smaller the body, the more dangerous binge-drinking can be; the younger the brain the more its maturation may be delayed and its ability to accumulate knowledge impaired.

Whoever supplied this boy with eight cans of bourbon and cola and two shots of a liqueur might not have known the mental risks but must have known a child of that age is not physically or emotionally equipped to cope with the consequences. The teenager who posted the video on the net, Bradley Goudie, knew what alcohol could do.

"He's, like 8. He could die," Goudie was heard to say on the video. He was not exaggerating. Professor Doug Sellman of the National Addiction Centre told the NZ Herald a high blood-alcohol level in children could result in death from heart arrhythmia, aspiration pneumonia or simply stopping breathing.

The police must spare no effort in finding what happened that afternoon and prosecuting the supplier of the alcohol. As Hamilton Area Commander Greg Nicholls said, "The spirit of the legislation around supplying liquor to minors never envisaged supplying alcohol to a 9-year-old."

The legislation may need to be revisited to ensure its intentions are clear. Though no parental permission appears to have been given for the supply of alcohol in this instance, the law allowing liquor to be given with parental permission to teenagers below the legal purchasing age may need to include an absolute minimum age for alcohol consumption.

And the sale of canned RTD mixes should be reconsidered too. They are purposely designed for young drinkers. When the law was revised a year ago, the industry was told to voluntarily control these drinks or face regulation. It has set a maximum alcohol content for the cans and banned advertising that appeals to minors.

But sweet drinks in cans will always entice the young. It is time they were banned. Beer, wine, and spirits have a natural child barrier: children by and large do not like them. But potent cocktails are a different proposition for those who are not ready to drink.

The industry says RTDs are giving way to cider among younger adults. It should encourage that trend and phase out RTDs entirely. What better reason does it need than the images of a 9-year-old wasted at a skate park?

That image ought to haunt the liquor industry and legislators for a long time. The video went worldwide and the image may have an impact far beyond New Zealand. The boy, meanwhile, needs help. The police and family services must ensure he receives it.

- Herald on Sunday

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