What Iceland Knows About Preventing Teen Drug Abuse that the Rest of the World Doesn’t

Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. The percentage of 15 and 16 year olds who have been drunk in the previous month plummeted from 42 percent in 1998 to just 5 percent in 2016. The percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 percent to 7 percent. Those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 percent to just 3 percent.

How has Iceland made such a significant impact on their drug and alcohol use by teens? After-school programs, organized sports, and parent-child bonding.

The program sparked the question: “Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry – because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness – without the deleterious effects of drugs,” said Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor who teaches for part of the year at Reykjavik University.

In 1992, Milkman’s team in Denver won a $1.2 million government grant to form Project SelfDiscovery, which offered teenagers natural-high alternatives to drugs and crimes. The idea was that different classes – music, dance, hip-hop, art, martial arts – could provide a variety of alterations in the kids’ brain chemistry, and give them what they need to cope better with life: some might crave an experience that could help reduce anxiety, others may be after a rush. At the same time, the recruits got life-skills training, which focused on improving their thoughts about themselves and their lives, and the way they interacted with people.

Kids were told it was a three-month program. Some stayed for five years.

While the after-school programs were inducted or increased, other changes were made. It became illegal to buy tobacco under the age of 18 and alcohol under the age of 20. Tobacco and alcohol advertising was banned. A law was passed prohibiting children aged between 13 and 16 from being outside after 10 p.m. in the winter and midnight in the summer. Home and School, the nation’s umbrella body for parental organizations, introduced agreements for parents to sign. For example, for children aged 13 and up, parents could pledge to not allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children.

State funding was increased for organized sport, music, art, dance, and other clubs to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group.

The Icelandic model is unlikely to be introduced to the United States in the same way. The United States population size is 325 million versus the 330,000 people who live in Iceland. There are approximately 1.3 homeless young people in the United States versus just a handful in Iceland. However, the need in the United States is high: underage drinking accounts for about 11 percent of all alcohol consumed nationwide and excessive drinking causes more than 4,300 deaths among under-21 year olds every year. One major obstacle that the US would face in implementation is that while in Iceland there is a long-term commitment to the national project, community health programs in the United States are usually funded by short-term grants.

However, if the Icelandic model was adopted, Milkman says, “it could benefit the general psychological and physical wellbeing of millions of kids, not to mention the coffers of healthcare agencies and broader society.”

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