Iceland's Strategy To Discourage Teen Binge-Drinking Is Actually Ingenious

And it works.

In order to combat drug and substance use in America, we have embraced programs such as D.A.R.E. and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America (PDFA), but the people of Iceland have turned to an entirely different approach that's been met with an extraordinary amount of success.

Like the United States, Iceland in the 1980s and 1990s was loaded with teens who readily and steadily used drugs and alcohol, but that all changed when policymakers in the Nordic nation shifted the way they thought about addiction. Per Good, instead of assuming people use substances in an effort to alter the way they feel, policymakers in Iceland embraced the teachings of American researcher Harvey Milkman, who suggested those who turn to drugs were simply transferring addictive behavior from one set of practices to another.

Milkman eventually settled in Iceland, where his work caught the eye of University of Iceland researcher, Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir. With Milkman's hypothesis in mind, Sigfúsdóttir created a high school survey that was administered across the country in 1992, 1995, and 1997. Instead of focusing solely on drug and alcohol use, queries also touched on key aspects of students' social lives, including time spent with family and in structured outside activities.   

The groundbreaking results showed that Iceland's teens didn't need more drug awareness and education, but instead they needed their ties to substances cut and their ties with families and friends strengthened. 

As reported by Good, what resulted was a set of laws and policies that played to both of those pivotal points, including restrictions on tobacco and alcohol sales and marketing, and curfew laws intended to keep kids out of trouble. Furthermore, the government also ensured kids had access to activities that could provide constructive companionship and skill development outside of school.

To say these surveys have completely altered young people's way of life in Iceland is an understatement. According to The Atlantic, Iceland tops the European table for the cleanest-living teens. While the percentage of 15- and 16-year-olds who had been drunk in the previous month stood at 42 percent in 1998, it fell to just to 5 percent in 2016. Similarly, the percentage who have ever used cannabis is down from 17 percent to 7 percent, and those smoking cigarettes every day fell from 23 percent to just 3 percent.

As the United States is in the midst of a deadly opioid epidemic — the Centers for Disease Control reports more than 64,000 people died in 2016 from drug overdoses — many have wondered why this country has failed to take a similar approach to drug use. As The Atlantic points out, a large part of the reason why a program like this hasn't been tested in the U.S. is because health programs in this country are typically not given a long-term commitment, but instead funded by short-term grants.

However, President Trump did declare the opioid crisis a "national public health emergency" in October, though it remains to be seen exactly what that means, if anything, in terms of allocated funds or policy changes.

Cover image via Shutterstock.

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