Monday, April 24, 2017

What's Up With Iceland?

Iceland, a country that Americans don't hear much about in the news is now the talk of the town, apparently.   At least among those who are interested in reducing youth substance abuse.  Since 1997, the consumption of alcohol, tobacco, cannabis, and other substances among 15-16 year olds has plummeted there, more so than any other nation, according to surveys.  And in fact, by 2016, Iceland was able to boast having the cleanest-living teens in the industrialized world, in contrast from being home to Europe's heaviest-drinking teens twenty years ago.  So how did they do it?

For starters, laws were changed.  The general age of majority was raised from 16 to 18, the smoking age was raised to 18, and the drinking age was raised to 20.  While possession and consumption are not illegal below that age over there, selling or furnishing alcohol or tobacco to people below that age is prohibited.  Advertising for both substances was banned, and the prices for both substances are very high due to taxation (e.g. alcohol in Iceland costs about double what it does in the USA on average). Also, a 10 pm curfew was implemented for 13-16 year olds, albeit relaxed to midnight in the summer.  (Of course, it should go without saying that we at Twenty-One Debunked would NOT support a drinking age any higher than 18, period, and from a youth-rights perspective we would NOT support age-based curfew laws either).

More importantly, though, were the other components of the Youth in Iceland strategy.  From the Mosaic article:

"Links between parents and school were strengthened through parental organisations which by law had to be established in every school, along with school councils with parent representatives. Parents were encouraged to attend talks on the importance of spending a quantity of time with their children rather than occasional “quality time”, on talking to their kids about their lives, on knowing who their kids were friends with, and on keeping their children home in the evenings."
Home and School, the national umbrella body for parental organisations, introduced agreements for parents to sign. The content varies depending on the age group, and individual organisations can decide what they want to include. For kids aged 13 and up, parents can pledge to follow all the recommendations, and also, for example, not to allow their kids to have unsupervised parties, not to buy alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye on the wellbeing of other children.
These agreements educate parents but also help to strengthen their authority in the home, argues Hrefna Sigurjónsdóttir, director of Home and School. “Then it becomes harder to use the oldest excuse in the book: ‘But everybody else can!’”
State funding was increased for organised sport, music, art, dance and other clubs, to give kids alternative ways to feel part of a group, and to feel good, rather than through using alcohol and drugs, and kids from low-income families received help to take part. In Reykjavik, for instance, where more than a third of the country’s population lives, a Leisure Card gives families 35,000 krona (£250) per year per child to pay for recreational activities."
So they seem to have an overall mixed bag from a youth-rights perspective, perhaps.  But that last bit about increasing state funding for recreational activities is what really seems to be the clincher for Iceland's success story.  Twenty-One Debunked certainly supports that aspect of the Youth in Iceland strategy.  And indeed that is precisely what one would predict from the famous yet underrated "Rat Park" studies.  To wit, boredom, stress, and especially lack of connection are the root causes of substance abuse and addiction.  Whether rats or people, give them fun stuff to do and opportunities to interact socially with one another, and they are less likely to want to numb themselves with alcohol or other drugs.  And that is true for all ages.

Note as well that Iceland, like all Nordic countries, has a very robust and generous social welfare state and social safety net. That clearly contributes to their relatively low level of poverty and desperation compared to the USA.  And they are generally one of the most progressive countries in the world in that regard.   And more so now than they were before the 2008 financial crisis.  So that might also have something to do with it as well.

Another gem from the same article, about when the less-controverisal aspects of the Icelandic model have been tried in some other places with a drinking age of 18 and no curfew laws, as Kaunas, Lithuania:

"Across Europe, rates of teen alcohol and drug use have generally improved over the past 20 years, though nowhere as dramatically as in Iceland, and the reasons for improvements are not necessarily linked to strategies that foster teen wellbeing. In the UK, for example, the fact that teens are now spending more time at home interacting online rather than in person could be one of the major reasons for the drop in alcohol consumption.
But Kaunas, in Lithuania, is one example of what can happen through active intervention. Since 2006, the city has administered the questionnaires five times, and schools, parents, healthcare organisations, churches, the police and social services have come together to try to improve kids’ wellbeing and curb substance use. For instance, parents get eight or nine free parenting sessions each year, and a new programme provides extra funding for public institutions and NGOs working in mental health promotion and stress management. In 2015, the city started offering free sports activities on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and there are plans to introduce a free ride service for low-income families, to help kids who don’t live close to the facilities to attend.
Between 2006 and 2014, the number of 15- and 16-year-olds in Kaunas who reported getting drunk in the past 30 days fell by about a quarter, and daily smoking fell by more than 30 per cent."

Thus, when viewed through a more nuanced lens than the mainstream media does, it becomes clear that Iceland's apparently miracle can indeed be achieved without raising the drinking age (or smoking age) any higher than 18, and without implementing youth curfew laws either.  Or any other forms of "social cleansing" for that matter, something the USA has a rather dark history of doing.

 It's time for the USA to stop "chasing the dragon" of failed drug and alcohol policies, pun intended, because try as we may, we all know that we're never gonna catch it.

1 comment:

  1. I'm always impressed in how Europe is more advanced on youth rights and the quality of life for young people in the United States. Those policies could be implemented in the U.S. if people were not ageists. It seems that ageism against young people is the most dominant form of discrimination in this country. Other countries have their scapegoats, such as LGBT people in Russia and in Jamaica. For the U.S. to do what was done in Lithuania, attitudes would have to be changed.