White Coat, Black Art

Lessons from Iceland: How one country turned around a teen drinking crisis

Dr. Brian Goldman travels to Iceland to find out how they turned around a culture of binge-drinking among youth, and discovers what we can learn from their incredible public health turnaround, just as Canada prepares to legalize cannabis.
In the 1990s, Iceland's teen drinking rate was around 42 per cent. Today, that figure is closer to 5 per cent. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)
Listen to the full episode26:29

When Skúli ​Helgason turned 13 years old, he celebrated the same way all of his friends did at that age: he got drunk.

The city councillor in Reykjavik, Iceland, now in his 50s, says it was a cultural rite of passage.

"When I was growing up, we had a dramatically different culture regarding teen drinking habits, smoking ... When you were 13, you were supposed to start drinking and pretty much everyone did that. It was just part of culture. There was something wrong with you if you didn't," said Helgason, chair of the city's Education and Youth Committee.

At that time and into the 1990s, the teen drinking rate in Iceland was around 42 per cent. It was the highest rate in Europe.

Now, when surveyed by the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis (ICSRA), only five per cent of teens in Iceland reported getting drunk in the past 30 days. The ICSRA is a non-profit institute at Reykjavik University.

Those regular surveys are a key element of a program called Planet Youth, which was started in 1999, to address what was seen as a crisis in teen drinking.

As chair of the education and youth committee for the City of Reykjavik, Skúli Helgason oversees the city's subsidy program that pays all parents 50,000 Icelandic Krona ($650 Cdn) per child per year to attend after school programs. (Brian Goldman/CBC)

That crisis, Helgason said, was evident to anyone who ventured to the city's centre on a weekend.

"It was not a safe place to be," Helgason told White Coat, Black Art host Dr. Brian Goldman when he visited Reykjavik this summer. 

At 3 a.m, when the bars and discos closed, up to 15,000 heavily intoxicated Icelanders— many of them underage teens— poured into the downtown, doing damage to property and causing general mayhem. 

The mayor at the time decided something had to be done, Helgason said. She brought together police, academia, parents and other stakeholders.

Soon after the program that would become Planet Youth was born. 

Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir was a young researcher at the time when the program started.

Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, director of the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis at Reykjavik University, describes Canada's foray into legal weed as a 'really big social experiment' with plenty of pitfalls. (Brian Goldman/CBC)

Sigfúsdóttir, now director of the ICSRA, told Dr. Goldman about the keys to the program's success, one of which is a focus on gathering evidence and publishing it to back up their results.

Another key element involves parents spending much more time with their kids, something Sigfúsdóttir says wasn't an easy sell in Iceland, where adults prefer work over play.

"It was not very popular because we wanted to believe in something we call 'quality time' — spending just a little time with them over a weekend, [or] going to a museum. We love work, so we needed to learn that spending time with our kids is a priority," she said. 

The local government also provided the equivalent of about $650 Canadian per child, per year, to parents for after-school programs such as sports or music.

Helgason says that policy has been transformative. 

"Teenagers now know they have better options than to use alcohol and tobacco," he said adding.

Soccer fields like this one are used heavily, thanks to subsidies for after school activities provided by the Icelandic government. (Brian Goldman )

Parents also stepped up, taking part in "parental walks" in their neighbourhoods, to look out for kids who might be at risk, and speaking to those who are out past the the suggested curfew set by the country's Child Protection Act. During the school year, teens between 13 and 16 should be inside by 10 p.m. For those under 12, it's 8 p.m.

Sigfúsdóttir says evidence shows that even if all parents don't buy in to taking part, there's a "neighbourhood effect" that benefits the majority of kids.

Parents are also encouraged to monitor who their kids' friends are, meet the parents of those friends, and keep tabs on where they are hanging out. Sigfúsdóttir called it a "protective factor" to prevent drug use. 

The success of the program has attracted interest from many other countries, including Ireland, Chile, the Netherlands, Denmark, and Latvia. This October, Planet Youth experts are visiting Manitoba.

Officials in Lanark County in Ontario say they're also looking to Planet Youth to help curb teen drinking, and to prepare for the legalisation of cannabis in Canada this October. White Coat, Black Art will have more on what's happening in that region in an upcoming episode. 

Sigfúsdóttir questioned Canada's move to legalise cannabis, suggesting the country is "normalising" the drug for kids, even though they legally aren't allowed to partake. 

"We're responsible for getting them through this age period without using any drugs. And kids who do not start during those first 18 or 20 years are much less likely to have this as a problem later in life, said.

"Why not give them a chance to lead happy, healthy lives? Why would they need to use substances? Why do you need to have it as an option?" she said.

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