Drug Education News

News and views from the Drug Education Forum

The State of the Drugs Problem in Europe 2008

europeHere’s some of what the latest report from the EMCDDA has to say about drug use in Europe.

Universal Prevention

Of particular interest to this blog is what the report has to say about universal prevention. The report argues that there appears to be a shift in what policy makers want school based drug education to achieve:

In 2007, developing life skills was the most frequently reported objective of prevention activities (12 out of 28 reporting countries), whereas in 2004, half of the countries (13/26) reported raising awareness and providing information as their main objective. Creating protective school environments, a form of structural intervention, was also more often mentioned as a main objective in 2007 (six countries) than it was in 2004 (four countries). The changes in reported objectives may reflect the adoption of a more rational and evidence-based approach, but the extent to which this change in objectives reflects actual provision is unclear.

The authors say that many countries are trying to engage parents, but it isn’t yet clear whether that is effective.

In contrast, some of the more strongly evidence based interventions are reported in only a few countries. These include standardised programmes, peer approaches or interventions specifically for boys; all of which aim to improve communication skills, increase abilities in handling conflicts, stress and frustration, or correct normative misperceptions about drug use. The overall predominance of interventions that lack or have only a weak evidence base might be due to the fact that they require fewer resources and less staff training.

They go on to say that schools are important in providing “protective and normative social environments” which influence young people’s decisions about drugs.

The report addresses the question of whether school based drug interventions are effective:

Several research studies have shown that interventions delivered during the early school years, aimed to improve educational environments and reduce social exclusion, also have a moderating effect on later substance use (Toumbourou et al., 2007).

The overall effectiveness of school-based prevention has been questioned (Coggans, 2006; Gorman et al., 2007). Recent literature reviews, however, show that certain components of school-based prevention, such as the focus on normative beliefs and life skills, seem to be effective. For example, the EU-Dap study, a European randomised controlled trial, co-funded by the European Commission, to develop and evaluate a school-based prevention programme, reported positive outcomes.

They warn that not only should prevention approaches be effective they need to avoid unwanted effects and say:

the risks of negative effects should be considered carefully when designing and evaluating interventions. This is particularly important for universal school-based prevention, which is delivered to a large and diverse target population. For instance, providing information about drug effects alone, a widespread approach in Europe, is not only ineffective but may carry risks of unwanted effects (Werch and Owen, 2002). The same applies to mass-media campaigns, which can carry risks of increasing the propensity for substance use.


Here it is talking about young people’s attitudes to drugs:

A recent Eurobarometer survey explored young people’s attitudes and perceptions on drugs and found considerable consensus among countries. Overall, the risks associated with using drugs such as heroin, cocaine and ecstasy were rated as high by between 81% and 96% of those surveyed. The vast majority of respondents (95%) felt that these drugs should continue to be controlled in Europe. Views on cannabis, however, were more divided, with 40% feeling that the drug posed a high risk, while about the same number (43%) considered that cannabis use represented a ‘medium health risk’, broadly similar to the risks associated with smoking tobacco.

You can read more about the survey’s findings here.


They suggest that the popularity of cannabis may be declining, particularly in countries where there is a high prevalence of use:

Declines in prevalence are most apparent among younger age groups. New school survey data from the latest HBSC (Health behaviour in school-aged children) study reveal a stable or decreasing trend in drug use among 15-year-old students in most countries during the 2001–2006 period and preliminary reports suggest that this picture may be confirmed by the latest round of ESPAD (European school project on alcohol and other drugs), which is due to be published at the end of 2008. In the United Kingdom, a country that used to stand out in terms of its high prevalence of cannabis use, a steady downward trend is now visible, and is most evident in the 16–24 age group. The reasons why cannabis use might be becoming less popular among young people are not well-documented, though they may be related to possible changes in the perceptions of the risks associated with the use of this drug. Some commentators have suggested that declines in the popularity of cannabis use may be associated with changing attitudes to cigarette smoking. Cannabis in Europe is often smoked in combination with tobacco, and drug prevention programmes increasingly address together the health implications of using both illegal and legal substances.

You can read more about the HBSC survey here.


As you may have seen from the media coverage of the report the UK has the highest use of cocaine in Europe and this is true of school aged young people too:

Among school students, overall prevalence levels for cocaine use are much lower than those for cannabis use. Ever in lifetime prevalence of cocaine use among 15- to 16-year-old school students is 2% or lower in most countries, rising to 4% in Spain and 5% in the United Kingdom (89). In countries that have reported recent data from national school surveys (Spain, Portugal, Slovakia, Sweden, United Kingdom), prevalence of cocaine use is stable or decreasing slightly, although changes in prevalence levels are usually too small to be statistically significant. In Spain, recent survey data have shown a significant decrease among 17- to 18-year-old school students.


The use of ecstasy by school aged young people in Europe is rare, although as the report points out the situation changes quickly once young people reach 16:

Among school students, large increases in prevalence levels may occur with small increases in age, for example data available from 16 countries show that, compared to younger students, lifetime prevalence of ecstasy use among 17- to 18-year-old school students is generally considerably higher, suggesting that first use of the drug commonly takes place after the age of 16.


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