Icelandic expert shares experience of tackling youth substance misuse

Icelandic expert shares experience of tackling youth substance misuse

Teenage smoking, drinking and drug use has radically reduced in Iceland over the past 20 years, so the Public Health Agency (PHA) and the South Eastern Drug and Alcohol Coordination Team (DACT) Connections Service* are hosting a seminar tomorrow [Wednesday 27 September] to review the Icelandic Prevention Model on tackling drug and alcohol misuse in young people to see how it, or elements of it, could potentially be rolled out here.

The seminar will include guest speakers Jón Sigfússon, director of Youth in Europe and the Icelandic Centre of Social Research and Analysis (ICSRA), and Dr Adrian Sarbu, a senior lecturer and associate professor of Sociology, Social Work and Religious Studies at Bucharest University, who will share their experience and expertise in the field of drug prevention and adolescent substance abuse prevention with professionals working in variety of  relevant fields such as health, education, criminal justice, etc. here in Northern Ireland.

Opening the event, Chief Medical Officer, Dr Michael McBride, said: “Preventing young people misusing alcohol and drugs, and intervening at an early stage, are key priorities in our current cross-Departmental substance misuse strategy, the New Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs. We are always interested in looking at examples elsewhere of programmes that have proven to have made long and lasting impacts not just for individuals but for whole societies. I am therefore delighted that both Jón Sigfússon and Dr Adrian Sarbu have come to share the learning from their successful Youth in Iceland project.  

“This is a cross-sectoral and systematic approach to addressing substance misuse and is very much in line with the approach set out in the draft Programme for Government. I will therefore bring the learning from today to the New Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs Steering Group to look at the viability of implementing this prevention model in Northern Ireland.”

The PHA’s Drugs and Alcohol lead Michael Owen said: “The issue of alcohol and drug misuse is of major concern to the PHA. The teenage years are vital to healthy cognitive function as an adult, so it is important to maintain a strict level of healthy behaviour during these years. Drug and alcohol misuse can impact the brain’s ability to function in the short-term as well as prevent proper growth and development for later in life.

“In addition to the physical risks of teen drinking and drug misuse, there are many other consequences that could haunt teens well into adulthood. Substance abuse can muddy reasoning and encourage rash decisions that go far beyond the biological and physiological aspects.”

Some of the consequences of substance misuse include:

  • Criminal records that cannot be expunged
  • Car accidents
  • Assaults
  • Sexually transmitted diseases
  • Unplanned pregnancies
  • Wasted academic opportunities
  • Late start in chosen career path
  • Damaged relationships with friends and family

Jón Sigfússon said: “The Youth in Iceland project was developed 20 years ago in response to escalating substance use among Icelandic youth. Despite a concerted approach to provide school-based education about the negative effects of drugs and alcohol, drug use was spiralling out of control. A group of us: policy makers, researchers and practitioners, decided to gather our strengths and try out a new approach. The multi-agency team focused on increasing adolescent participation in structured and organised youth activities supervised by adults and increasing the time spent together by adolescents and their families.

“From 1998 to 2016, the percentage of 15-16 year olds who had drunk in the past 30 days declined from 42% to 5%; daily cigarette smoking dropped from 23% to 3%; and having used cannabis one or more times, fell from 17% to 5%. It is a pleasure to be asked to visit Northern Ireland to share our experience and hopefully help reduce the prevalence of drug and alcohol abuse among young people here.”

Michael Owen continued: “Children and young people are an invaluable part of our society, so it is important that we look at ways in which we can reduce the harm caused to them by drug and alcohol misuse and provide better opportunities for them. The workshop will provide an opportunity for health and social care professionals and those in community and voluntary organisations who work in the prevention of drug and alcohol-related harm to hear more about how we can tackle the issue in Northern Ireland. It will also provide an opportunity for the New Strategic Direction for Alcohol and Drugs steering group to consider the viability of implementing the Icelandic Prevention Model here.”

If you think you might have a problem with alcohol and/ or drugs and would like to get help please visit for information on support services near you. There is also a range of services available to you if you are affected by someone else’s drinking and/or drug misuse, information on these services are also available on this website. These services are available to you regardless of whether or not your loved one is receiving help for his or her alcohol and/or drug problem.

Notes to the editor

The PHA has funded a DACT Connections Service in each HSCT locality which acts as the operational arm of the local DACT; assisting the Team to take forward its priority actions and to work with other stakeholder organisations and partnerships in the area to develop and deliver drug and/or alcohol-related projects, events and initiatives.

The Connections Service also works closely with local community groups and forums, service user representatives and/or networks and with drug and alcohol service providers to ensure that the DACT is made aware of any emerging trends, issues of concern and gaps or pressures in service delivery.

The Connections contract was awarded to ASCERT (covering South Eastern and Western HSC Trusts), Extern (Belfast Trust) and Start 360 (Northern and Southern Trusts)