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© Alice Mollon for Mosaic


© Alice Mollon for Mosaic

How one Mosaic story helped the global spread of a successful policy for tackling teen substance abuse.

In January 2017, Mosaic published my story about a radical – and hugely successful – programme to combat teenage smoking, drinking and drug abuse. The headline was Iceland knows how to stop teen substance abuse but the rest of the world isn’t listening. Two years on, when I catch up with Jón Sigfússon and Inga Dóra Sigfúsdóttir, the two researchers leading the programme, Jón says: “Believe me, now the world is listening.”

Iceland used to have some of the worst statistics for teen alcohol and drug use and smoking in Europe. To turn this around, the Youth in Iceland programme used a combination of changes in the law, regular surveys of every 14-to-16-year-old in the country, the establishment of parenting organisations, night-time curfews, and targeted state and municipal funding to improve access to organised sport and other activities. Now Iceland has the cleanest-living teens in Europe.

And there’s good evidence they are mostly staying that way. For example, the latest figures from late 2018 show that 46 per cent of young adults aged 16 to 19 report never having been drunk, compared with 18 per cent 20 years ago.

By the time I wrote my story, Youth in Iceland had expanded to become Youth in Europe, and 35 municipalities in different countries were setting up trials of the model. Even so, says Inga Dóra, the story “caught the attention of the world; everything happened after that. We had people calling from all over the world, connecting with us.”

This year, the model will have been adopted in around 100 communities in 24 different countries, and Jón and Inga Dóra are talking to many more. Harvey Milkman, a psychologist who has been a long-time consultant and collaborator on the work, has promoted it in Finland, India and Colombia. In February, Jón flew to Stockholm for the announcement of a Scandinavian roll-out of the programme. He is in discussions with Australia and Northern Ireland.

Iceland knows how to stop teen substance abuse but the rest of the world isn’t listening

Teen smoking, drinking and drug use has been radically cut in the past 20 years. Why won’t other countries follow suit?

And in March 2019, the biggest international expansion of the Icelandic model yet will be announced by Mariano Montenegro, an adviser to the Chilean government and former director of the National Service for the Prevention and Rehabilitation of Drugs and Alcohol.

Chile tops the table for teen marijuana use in South America, and it also ranks high in the continent for alcohol and tobacco use (though not all countries in South America collect these data). “We are starting with a big problem, like Iceland had,” says Mariano.

But can something that worked in a small, rich country (Iceland’s population is just over 330,000 and its GDP per capita was US$70,000 in 2017) really translate to a bigger, less wealthy country (Chile’s population is around 18 million, with a GDP per capita of US$15,000)?

Mariano believes that it can: “I think it is a good idea not only for Chile but for the rest of the world.”

Chile began a pilot study in the capital, Santiago, in 2017. The initial questionnaires revealed huge disparities in rates of violence, sport participation and suicide, even within the same municipalities. This information will allow for targeted interventions along the same lines as those used in Iceland.

The next wave of surveys won’t happen until August 2020, so it will be a while before any results are available from the pilot. But there is already huge enthusiasm for extending the model across the rest of the country. Mariano says several medical and scientific experts in Chile had read the Mosaic story and were in favour of the new approach.

And so, at a United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime meeting later this March, Mariano will announce that Chile is going to start rolling out the programme nationally in 2019.

A programme that started out as Youth in Iceland then expanded to Youth in Europe has now become Planet Youth. And the team’s dream of improving the lives of young people, their families and broader society is becoming a reality around the world.

Read our other pieces celebrating the impact of five years of Mosaic stories – including updates on our stories on safer surgery in Mongolia, postpartum psychosis, and the swallowing disorder dysphagia.

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