The United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP) released its latest report yesterday, which shows that drug use among Eastern European teenagers continues to rise. While Eastern Europe will take years to catch up economically to the continent's richer Western half, in terms of substance abuse, the gap has largely been closed.
Prague, 27 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Statistics released by the United Nations yesterday show drug use among teenagers in Eastern Europe doubled in the period between 1995 and 1999.
In Croatia, Estonia, Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia, for example, the number of teens who reported trying illegal drugs at least once doubled during the four-year period. In Lithuania, according to the survey, the figure rose fivefold from 1995 to 1999, from 3 percent to 15 percent of the adolescent population. Thirty-four percent of 16-year-olds polled in the Czech Republic say they have experimented with illegal drugs -- for the most part marijuana.
Sandeep Chawla, chief researcher at the United Nations Office for Drug Control and Crime Prevention (ODCCP), prepared the report, based on statistics obtained within the framework of the European Survey Project on Alcohol and Drugs, which every four years questions 15- and 16-year-olds across Europe about their drug use.
Chawla tells RFE/RL that in many respects, Eastern Europe has "caught up" with the western half of the continent in the level of drug availability and consumption: "It's closing the gap, yes. And for many drugs, the trend over the last few years increases in Eastern Europe compared to Western Europe. In many cases, in Western Europe, levels of abuse are stable, whereas in Eastern Europe they're increasing."
The reasons are manifold, but one of the main contributing factors has been the opening of borders across the region in the decade since the collapse of communism. As Central and Eastern European states re-establish trade ties with their neighbors and plug into the global economy, drug traders are piggy-backing onto this network for their own needs. Eastern Europe serves as both a transit zone and a final destination. Chawla: "More and more heroin is getting through to Eastern Europe or coming via Eastern Europe to Western Europe, so one part of this is merely expansion of use along the trans-shipment zone. The other is that the openness of the economies and the systems -- obviously, if there's more free trade in goods, then there are more possibilities for drugs to get through across the borders."
The UN survey would appear to confirm what many have suspected in Eastern Europe for quite some time: that drugs are more easily available in the region than they were five or 10 years ago and that more teenagers are coming into contact with them. But should the UN statistics warrant alarm, and do they indicate a looming youth-addiction crisis?
Tomas Zabransky, a senior researcher at the Czech Republic's Institute for Preventive Medicine, has conducted several studies looking at drug use among teens in the region for both the European Union and the Czech government. He says it is important to understand what the UN figures can and cannot reveal about the drug scene in Eastern Europe.
First, he confirms that the number of 15- and 16-year-olds who admit to trying some type of illegal drug did double regionwide between 1995 and 1999. But this mostly concerns experimentation with marijuana, not so-called "hard" drugs, such as heroin, with more detrimental health effects. "It is true that the figure has almost doubled, but as regards use of highly dangerous drugs -- and in the Czech Republic, this means pervitin and heroin; in Poland, it's heroin and homemade opiates -- that figure has not gone up nearly as much."
Second, the statistics measure so-called "lifetime prevalence" -- in other words, whether a 15- or 16-year-old has tried an illegal drug at least once. But this is not necessarily an indication of whether that teenager has become a regular user. Sandeep Chawla of the ODCCP: "More young people are certainly taking drugs, but it does not mean that you can conclude from this that it is problematic drug use."
Zabransky points to a recent Czech study which shows a differentiation between use of marijuana and "harder" drugs. "As concerns school students -- 16-year-olds -- we registered, starting in 1997, a relatively positive trend, which notes that although the number of 16-year-olds who are trying marijuana or hashish at least once continues to increase slightly, since 1997 the number of 16-year-olds who have had experience with hard drugs has gone down. This tells me that they are beginning to gain an awareness of the different risks involved between these two groups of drugs."
Zabransky ascribes this partial success to government-sponsored public-awareness campaigns, as well -- ironically -- to the fact that hard-core drug addicts are now seen on the streets of major cities. "Thanks to the fact that these hard drugs have been present here for some time -- you can encounter them openly in society, which was not true under communism, although there were addicts then also, you didn't see them in downtown Prague -- 16-year-olds can see the devastating effect of these hard drugs, and they can draw their own conclusions."
Judging by the UN statistics, drug use seems to afflict richer countries more than poorer ones. The number of Czech teens who have experimented with drugs, for example, is nearly triple the number of Bulgarian teens who say they have tried illegal substances. Some have advanced the theory that this is because poorer countries merely act as transit zones while richer ones also end up as drug consumers. But Zabransky says this is not the case.
"It's rather that the richer countries can afford a better monitoring system. There is no accurate, quantitative information on drug use in Romania because there is no reliable -- no, in fact there is no monitoring system at all in Romania. This means that in the UN numbers, Romania appears clean -- as an untouched country. Everyone who has been there, on business or as a tourist, knows this is not true. Bulgaria, which lies on the drug route between Turkey and Central and Western Europe, is far more affected by heroin use than the Czech Republic, but you wouldn't learn that from the statistics, because the monitoring system there only works for Sofia and not the rest of the country."
Chawla at the ODCCP acknowledges the problem in collecting accurate comparative statistics: "Very clearly, what tends to happen is that countries which have good reporting systems very often show their accurate figures, and countries which don't have good reporting systems, their reports are blank. We try and make estimates where we can, but the whole process is very slow-moving, and the consumption data is the softest data set in this whole report, in any case."
While researcher tend to focus their attention on illegal drugs, use of legal drugs such as tobacco and alcohol continues to increase apace among teenagers in the region. While some 34 percent of 16-year-olds recently surveyed in the Czech Republic report smoking marijuana at least once in their lives, 90 percent of them report drinking alcohol within the past month. Twenty percent of them report getting seriously drunk. Zabransky says this should also be cause for concern.
"As regards tobacco and alcohol use among 16-year-olds, in the Czech Republic and across Europe, but especially Eastern Europe, the use indicators are growing even more quickly. This means that our 16-year-olds drink two to two and a half times as much as they did in 1995."
Zabransky says people should change their lax attitudes about alcohol and tobacco in Eastern Europe and put pressure on politicians to limit advertising that targets teenagers. He points to two recent ad campaigns in the Czech Republic -- one for a local cigarette brand called "Petra," which showed young people socializing and smoking, and the other for a brand of whisky -- as particularly influential and harmful.
"If you look at ads and how they are set up, they propagate these substances in a manner which is not allowed in the West. They seek to equate the use of addictive substances such as tobacco and alcohol with being an adult, with being liked, with being successful. If you remember the campaign: 'Moje Parta -- Moje Petra' (My Buddies -- My Petra), what does that say? If you don't smoke, you won't be accepted by your peers. If you recall the ad for Johnny Walker [whisky] -- 'When your life flashes before your eyes, you better hope it was worth living.' What does that say? If you didn't get drunk a few times, you didn't live a full life."
Numerous studies, Zabransky points out, have shown a connection between the overconsumption of alcohol and tobacco -- especially among teenagers -- and a propensity to become addicted to illegal drugs. He says the idea that societies can solve their illegal drug problem and not do anything about legal drugs is naive.
But most governments' addiction to the tax revenue alcohol and tobacco sales bring in maybe the toughest one to break.