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UN: Stockholm Conference Aims To Curb Alcohol Abuse Among Youth

By Zamira Echanova

A three-day conference underway in Stockholm is examining the growing problem of drug and alcohol abuse among young people. The conference, organized by the World Health Organization and current EU president Sweden, was called to discuss new research indicating that drinking habits among Europe's teens are changing for the worse. RFE/RL correspondent Zamira Echanova reports from Stockholm that conference participants are discussing ways to reverse that trend.

Stockholm, 21 February 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Health ministers and representatives of youth organizations from 51 countries have gathered in Stockholm this week to discuss the problems of young people and alcohol abuse.

The European office of the World Health Organization (WHO), which organized the conference ending today, said that while adults are drinking less these days, young people are drinking significantly more than they were just a few years ago.

They added that the change in drinking habits is contributing to a marked increase in alcohol-related injuries and deaths.

Research findings presented at the conference indicate that alcohol accounted for 5 percent of the deaths of young people between the ages of 15 and 29 worldwide. In Europe, however, alcohol is the number one killer of young people. One in four deaths of young men is alcohol related. In parts of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union the figure is as high as one in three.

Conference participants discussing ways to combat the problem dismissed outright prohibition of alcohol sales and consumption as an option, saying age limits for the purchase of alcohol and restrictions on its advertising and sale were more realistic alternatives.

WHO's regional director for Europe, Dr. Marc Danzon, was among the people advocating a moderate approach to the problem.

"Prohibition doesn't work. [This has been our experience.] When you prohibit the product, it [motivates] people to find it and use it. All the history of prohibition has shown the perverse effect it has -- contradictory to the stated objective. So it is easy to understand what to do. It doesn't call for intelligence."

Danzon stressed that the Stockholm conference should send two key messages: It's time to change public opinion towards alcohol and to push decision-makers to make the alcohol issue a top priority.

Youth representatives attending the conference are holding their own meetings and discussions with officials. Fourteen-year-old Inesa Traur of Lithuania said she was optimistic about the conference's outcome:

"I think this conference is really useful. Because young people themselves decide something. They can express their opinion about alcohol and they really want to change something. In some way even to push the governments to do something."

Among the conference results is WHO's draft for a European Alcohol Action Plan, which aims to increase alcohol taxation, restrict alcohol's availability to youth, restrict alcohol advertising, and fight drunken driving. The plan's central goal is ambitious: to decrease the overall consumption of alcohol by 25 percent by 2005.