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Expert meeting on environmental strategies - June 2006

In June 2006, an experts meeting on environmental prevention strategies was the first event at the Centre to focus on the regulation of legal psychoactive substances, reflecting the EMCDDA’s current task to examine poly-drug use in the EU drugs action plan.

Debated topics included: the merits of league tables in evaluating and enabling ‘domino effects’ in government policymaking; do regulations influence culture or viceversa?; the typical correlation between the early onset (first-time use) of both licit and illicit substances especially cannabis among adolescents; the lack of broad impact of school education, mass media and health promotion interventions, particularly those constructed around drugs information only and long-term health warnings; the need to examine the cross-substance effects of tobacco bans and alcohol regulations; the aggressive marketing and retail design techniques used to encourage binge drinking; the cultural, political, economic and even sacramental significance of alcohol in Europe — does alcohol represent a holy cow which politicians are afraid to touch?

Environmental strategies are effective, but the impact on youngsters however is a more complex than direct relationship: environmental strategies seem to work through affecting the normative aspects of adult life and so rather indirectly on young people.

From a health response perspective, the legal status of drugs has limited importance. In a pragmatic analysis, similar principles of preventive effectiveness apply to legal as well as to illegal drugs: reduce availability and social acceptance, strengthen social norms against, without criminalising or demonising users and addicts. While cannabis policies gradually shift – from a position of strict prohibition – in this direction, it makes also sense for alcohol and tobacco policies to reach a similar point – from a position of too large deregulation. Their importance in threating public health is similar. This is far from being “prohibition” as neither the private use nor the sale of these drugs is banned. These new and thougher policies on alcohol and tobacco are merely "correcting market failures" as one participant pointed out.

The event also revealed that experts in alcohol, tobacco and illegal drugs have a lot to learn from each other. Professionals working in the illicit drugs field are often unaware of the effectiveness of environmental strategies on legal drugs and the need of having them as a normative fundament for any drugs prevention. On the other side, researchers and lobbyists on environmental responses for tobacco and alcohol do rarely investigate their larger effects on recreational cultures and on social norms, i.e. the possible proxy effects on cannabis and other “popularised” illegal drugs.

Smoking ban in Ireland (Martin Keane)

Ireland was one of the first member states to introduce a full smoking ban in all public spaces, which was initially a move to protect workers in highly smoke exposed workplace, i.e. above all restaurants and bars. This paper by Martin Keane outlines the developments that led to the ban, the first experiences and some preliminary outcomes.

The paper addresses also the question - largely discussed at the meeting - when is the time ripe for introducing smoking bans in a society, balancing public opinion, the positions of medical and industrials associations and lobbying against and in favour.

The cross-substance ‘spin-off’ effects of the recent introduction of smoking bans in Ireland are likely to be keenly monitored by illicit drugs researchers, although the evidence base needs to be built in more member states.

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Alcohol strategies in UK (Karen Hughes)

The paper of Karen Hughes describes lively the panoply of environmental measures in the UK in response to binge drinking and alcohol related problems. As it came out during the discussions, this level of environmental responses reflect well how the status of alcohol is different from tobacco in most non-Nordic member states: environmental strategies on alcohol include to a much less extent taxation and selling restrictions, avoiding direct collision with interests of alcohol industries.

Efforts to reduce binge drinking have a direct link to illicit drugs, focusing specifically on what is euphemised in the media as ‘partying’ (poly-drug use in recreational settings).

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Tobacco control policies in Europe (Luc Joosens)

Recently, strategies with regard to tobacco have benefited from strong political buy-in, including an EU directive banning tobacco advertising, domestic public place smoking restrictions or bans, and – in many Member States – increases in tobacco taxes.

Luc Joossens' papers resumes key findings from a study for the European Commission "Tobacco or Health in the European Union". Major interest point for participants was the scoring system on tobacco control policies that allows for comparing the strength of environmental strategies across member states. Weighted by intervention areas (taxation level, smoking bans, advertisement bans) it allows for ranking of policies and for comparing these rankings to other public health indicators. Rankings create therefore some nervousness at policy level. The discussion on this paper rose several additional points and open questions:

The tobacco industry seems to be keen on financing hardly evidence-based prevention programmes in schools while those are less effective than environmental strategies.

The effectiveness of environmental prevention strategies in reducing tobacco consumption seems to be mostly due to an impact on the adult population, only indirectly (norm-setting, perception of normality) on youth. If the direct impact on youth is so low, is then a collateral positive effect on illicit drugs less to be expected?

Another open key question is whether tobacco bans bring down or intensify alcohol use, as both are known to be correlated under several aspects.

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The role of alcohol (Peter Anderson)

Different from tobacco, the political climate is not in favour of environmental strategies targeting alcohol-related harm. Taxation and advertising bas on alcohol have encountered substantial political resistance. For example, an October 2006 European Commission communication on alcohol-related harm places emphasis on self-regulation by industry and national governments as opposed to supranational legislative measures.

Peter Anderson paper gives an overview on alcohol-related harm in Europe and on possible effective policy options, in the form of environmental strategies. Till now, especially in party settings, the traditional focus is too biased towards individual-based responses alone, not questioning the underlying social and economic logics of party culture.

At the discussion it became clear that the implementation of environmental strategies on alcohol is not a straightforward simple endeavour: regulatory measures must come at the right time (political climate, public opinion, cultural background, influence of industries and of public health lobbies). To be considered is especially the differential public perception of Tobacco contrary to Alcohol which is perceived as less harmful.

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History and concepts of environmental strategies (Robin Room)

Robin Room's paper gives on overview on the concept and the terminological history of environmental strategies and tries to make a bridge to the field of illicit drugs.

Environmental prevention strategies on legal drugs have proved to be more effective than classical, individual-oriented, prevention strategies in reducing incidence and prevalence of legal drugs. While the association of early tobacco and alcohol use and use of (and problems with) illegal drugs is well established, it needs yet to be proven whether environmental prevention strategies, while able to reduce alcohol and tobacco use, do also have positive spin-off effects on illegal drugs.

At the discussions, additional points were made by the participants: A distinction can be made with regard to the scale of the strategy. ‘Macro’ environmental strategies typically comprise legislation at the supranational or national government level (e.g. taxation, advertising bans). ‘Micro’ environmental strategies are focused on both restricting availability in the use setting (e.g. venue, retailer and event licensing, restricting retailer opening hours). Outlet reduction works well for alcohol, but not for tobacco.

For environmental strategies in all fields, especially the importance of rapidly changing youth cultures has to be taken into consideration, alongside with other questions as for instance whether e.g. cannabis is an economic complement (as fuel is to cars) or rather a substitute (as wine is for beer) to legal drugs. In other words, can stronger environmental strategies on legal drugs reduce as well cannabis use (complement) or will then people directly start using Cannabis (substitute)?

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About the EMCDDA

The European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) is the reference point on drugs and drug addiction information in Europe. Inaugurated in Lisbon in 1995, it is one of the EU's decentralised agencies. Read more >>

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Page last updated: Tuesday, 18 December 2007