How Iceland reduced teenage substance abuse

It all started with psychologist asking the right questions:

“Any college kid could say: why do they start? Well, there’s availability, they’re risk-takers, alienation, maybe some depression,” he says. “But why do they continue? So I got to the question about the threshold for abuse and the lights went on – that’s when I had my version of the ‘aha’ experience: they could be on the threshold for abuse before they even took the drug, because it was their style of coping that they were abusing.”

In his research he sought to answer these questions and came with fascination conclusions that in hindsight seem pretty common sense:

Milkman’s doctoral dissertation concluded that people would choose either heroin or amphetamines depending on how they liked to deal with stress. Heroin users wanted to numb themselves; amphetamine users wanted to actively confront it.

It led to the obvious outcomes in people:

Kids who were “active confronters” were after a rush – they’d get it by stealing hubcaps and radios and later cars, or through stimulant drugs. Alcohol also alters brain chemistry, of course. It’s a sedative but it sedates the brain’s control first, which can remove inhibitions and, in limited doses, reduce anxiety.


“People can get addicted to drink, cars, money, sex, calories, cocaine – whatever,” says Milkman. “The idea of behavioural addiction became our trademark.”

They implemented a plan for social activities and natural highs to replace the highs provided by substances, and social changes like more time spent at home between parents and children, and the changes were dramatic.

They also implemented a study for all sorts of communities in Europe and as far as South Korea. Tailored to local factors they found some stark similarities, but there were some obvious facepalm pushback moments:

One predominantly Muslim country, which he prefers not to identify, rejected the data because it revealed an unpalatable level of alcohol consumption

Now denial has always been ways of avoiding talking about the problems that kids are facing, those same kids who grow up as adults to continue to have problems and pass on those problems to generations onwards.

No other country has made changes on the scale seen in Iceland. When asked if anyone has copied the laws to keep children indoors in the evening, Jón smiles. “Even Sweden laughs and calls it the child curfew!”

Naufal Mir @abijango