A new approach to underage drinking – the Icelandic model


A Cork City Councilor under the Debate Promotion umbrella recently suggested that the City Council write to the Attorney General asking him to consider lowering the legal drinking age to 16, because “the current system, which has been in place for decades, is clearly not working”.

Cllr Shane O’Callaghan is correct to suggest that a new approach to tackling this problem is warranted. A recent Health Research Board (HRB) report confirmed that one in three young people (aged 15-24) in Ireland engage in ‘hazardous and harmful drinking’ and that if young people drink later in life, more are involved in hazardous activities. drink and develop alcohol-related problems.

The report also confirmed rising levels of ecstasy and cocaine use which are the second highest in Europe for this age group. The HRB says there is a clear link between mental health and substance use. Alcohol-dependent young adults are more likely to suffer from severe anxiety, and cannabis users are six times more likely to report poor mental health than non-cannabis users.

Rather than considering lowering the minimum drinking age, it might be more useful to look at the reasons behind dangerous and harmful drinking habits as well as ecstasy drinking habits and cocaine.

Central Reykjavík in 1997 saw “hoards of teenagers getting drunk in their faces”. Two decades later, Iceland was at the top of the European ranking of the cleanest teenagers. Image from file: iStock

Joe Barry, retired professor of population health medicine at Trinity College and an expert in thematic approaches to problematic substance use, says: “One of the best legacies Irish parents can pass on to their children is delaying the onset of alcohol consumption. tells us that children who start drinking in adolescence see their addiction quadruple later in life.

“Ireland can be a difficult place for children between the ages of 14 and 17 who don’t want to drink alcohol. Marketing is relentless, sports sponsorship by alcohol companies is praised and alcohol education in schools is dwarfed by the marketing and advertising budgets of liquor companies.

Introducing your child to alcohol at home is not recommended as a strategy to reduce your child’s risk of alcohol problems.

One of the most visible successes in reducing excessive alcohol consumption among young people has occurred in Iceland, where an approach combining curfews, sports and an understanding of children’s brain chemistry has helped to significantly reduce drug addiction in the country.

In 1997, Icelandic teenagers were among the highest drinking young people in Europe. Harvey Milkman, an American psychology professor at Reykjavik University is quoted in The Atlantic: “You couldn’t walk the streets of downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it didn’t seem safe to you. There was hordes of teenagers getting drunk in their faces.”

Sound familiar?

In 1997, Icelandic teenagers were among the highest drinking young people in Europe.  Image from file: iStock
In 1997, Icelandic teenagers were among the highest drinking young people in Europe. Image from file: iStock

Two decades later, Iceland was at the top of the European ranking of the cleanest teenagers. The percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month fell from 42% in 1998 to 5% in 2016. Cannabis use fell from 17% to 7% and cigarette use fell from 23% to just 3%. %.

The turnaround was both sweeping and evidence-based, but relied heavily on what one might call imposed common sense.

Milkman’s theory was that young people were becoming addicted to changes in brain chemistry. Kids who were “active confronters” were looking for a rush – they got it by stealing cars or consuming stimulants. Alcohol also changes brain chemistry. It is a sedative, but it calms brain control first, which can remove inhibitions and, in limited doses, reduce anxiety.

Natural highs

Milkman suggested that if a social movement were orchestrated around natural euphoria: around people getting high on their own brain chemistry – without the deleterious effects of alcohol and drugs – it could be a transformative change in people’s lives. youth.

This idea gave birth to the Self Discovery Project, which offered American teenagers natural alternatives to drugs and crime. The project aimed to teach children with substance abuse problems everything they wanted to learn – music, dance, hip hop, art, sports. Life skills training was also provided, focusing on improving their perception of themselves and their lives.

“The basic premise was that drug education doesn’t work. What it takes are life skills to act on that information,” he said. Children were initially offered a three-month program – many stayed for five years.

Milkman brought his ideas to Iceland in 1991 and the idea grew from treating children with drug and alcohol problems to using the approach to prevent children from drinking or doing drugs in the first place. The result was the introduction of a national plan called Youth in Iceland.

The laws have been changed. It has become illegal to buy tobacco for those under 18 and alcohol for those under 20. Tobacco and alcohol advertising has been banned. Parents were encouraged to spend time with their children, find out who their friends were, and keep their children home at night.

Children under 16 had to be home by 10 p.m. in winter and midnight in summer. Parents have been encouraged by schools not to allow children to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors and to look out for the well-being of other children.

State funding for organized sport, music, artistic dance was increased and low-income groups were prioritized for funding.

Surveys were carried out every year. Between 1997 and 2012, the number of children spending time with their parents on weekdays doubled from 23% to 46%, and the percentage who participated in sports rose from 24% to 42%, while consumption of cigarettes, alcohol and cannabis has dropped.

stumbling block

Although participation in similar programs has occurred in Europe, it is at the municipal level rather than under the direction of the national government. The “kids curfew” is a stumbling block that many countries outside of Iceland find a step too far.

The Icelandic approach goes to the heart of the balance of responsibilities between states and citizens. How much control should the government have over what happens to your children? Is the Icelandic approach too much about the government interfering in how people live their lives?

What is clear is that in Iceland, the relationship between the people and the state has enabled an effective national program to reduce the number of adolescents who smoke and drink to excess – and, in doing so, has brought families together and helped young people be healthier in every country. kinds of ways.

A model for Ireland

Is it worth considering that the benefits of such an approach are worth the costs? Has this approach been tried in Ireland?

The Western Drug and Alcohol Task Force launched a similar approach in 2019 with support from partners including the HSE, Tusla and local schools in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon. The five-year initiative includes increased provision of structured after-school and holiday activities for teens and more accessible parenting supports for all.

Parental guidelines focus on screen time, bedtime, sports and hobbies, alcohol consumption, vaping, and family time. If successful, the approach has the potential to serve as a model for rolling out other programs across Ireland.

This is perhaps the kind of novel approach worth considering.

  • Dr Catherine Conlon is Chief Medical Officer in the Department of Public Health at St Finbarr’s Hospital, Cork and former Director of Human Health and Nutrition, safefood. All views are those of the author.

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