Youth policy topics Youth policy topics

Drug misuse and related initiatives at the European level

This section gives information about drugs issues and their relevance for young people in Europe

Drugs: Definition, and relevance to young people

What are drugs?

‘Drugs' means all psychoactive substances (‘substances that people take to achieve a change of mental, physical or emotional state') including tobacco, alcohol, medicinal drugs and volatile substances (inhalants). However, at the policy level controlled drugs (those included under international treaties) are dealt with differently to other substances. 

Why are drugs issues important?

Drugs issues are important because many people have tried psychoactive substances – so it is a major social phenomenon; much drug-taking involves law-breaking; and supplying some types of drugs to users involves serious crime – and drug trafficking transcends national borders

Drug issues are especially important in relation to young people as it is often in the teenage years that psychoactive substances are tried for the first time. Young people may be especially vulnerable – because of immaturity and inexperience.

How many young people have tried drugs?

Many young people across Europe have sampled controlled drugs. Many more have sampled other psychoactive substances, such as tobacco and alcohol. Far fewer are regular users of drugs, and even fewer have drug-related problems – although the absolute numbers in Europe are large. The most recent ESPAD Survey (in 2007, covering 35, mainly European, countries) found that, among 15- to 16-year-olds:

  • at least two-thirds had drunk alcohol at least once during their lifetime
  • on average, 58 per cent had tried cigarettes at least once; and 29 per cent had smoked in the past 30 days
  • 23 per cent of boys and 17 per cent of girls had tried illicit drugs at least once during their lifetime
  • most young people who had tried illicit drugs had used cannabis; lifetime cannabis use was reported by 19 per cent, and seven per cent had tried one or more other drugs
  • lifetime use of inhalants (volatile substances) was nine per cent
  • there was an overall downward trend in levels of drug use between 2003 and 2007, but there were exceptions. For example, Estonia and the UK had similar prevalence levels in 2007 (about 28 per cent), but this level was reached from opposite directions: in Estonia, an increase from eight per cent in 1995; and in the UK, a decrease from 42 per cent
  • however, heavy episodic drinking was on an upward trend between 1995 and 2007 (a nine per cent increase), mostly due to girls' increased drinking

Drugs harms

While most people who try drugs do not come to harm, drug-taking can lead to serious health, legal and social problems. Health and legal problems can be due to intoxication (doing dangerous or illegal things) or due to the psychoactive substances themselves – if they are illegal to possess, then there is a potential risk of being caught; and drugs can adversely affect health in the short- or long-term. Social problems can occur, for example, when parents or friends of drug-takers disapprove of their behaviour, or where drug-taking dominates someone's life and prevents them from doing other things – such as studying or working.

The legal and political framework for tackling drugs issues

The European Monitoring Centre on Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA)

The EMCDDA is the hub for drug-related information in the European Union. It provides the EU and its Member States with facts about drugs and a common framework to inform the drugs debate. It produces an Annual Report on the state of the drugs problem in Europe. Available in 23 languages, the report provides the latest European data and commentary on the drug situation across the 27 EU Member States, Croatia, Turkey and Norway. 

EU Drugs Strategy, 2005–2012 and EU Drug Action Plan, 2009–2012

The eight-year EU Drugs Strategy (2005-2012) combines reducing the demand for drugs (‘demand reduction') with reducing the supply of drugs (‘supply reduction').

The Drug Strategy has three cross-cutting themes: coordination; international cooperation; and research, information and evaluation. The Strategy links the two consecutive four-year EU Action Plans on drugs (2005–2008 and 2009-2012).

The EU Drugs Action Plan (2009-2012) has the ultimate aim to: ‘significantly reduce the prevalence of drug use among the population and to reduce the social and health damage caused by the use of and trade in illicit drugs'. There are five priorities: 

  • reducing the demand for drugs
  • reducing the supply of drugs
  • improving understanding of the drugs issues.
  • mobilising European citizens to take action
  • improving international cooperation on drugs issues

The demand reduction priority is particularly concerned with children and young people (especially potentially vulnerable groups), and emphasises the significance of polydrug use (the use of more than one drug).

Council of Europe Pompidou Group

The Pompidou Group‘s core mission is to: ‘contribute to the development of multidisciplinary, innovative, effective and evidence-based drug policies in its member states.' It comprises 35 member states. In 1980, the Pompidou Group was incorporated into the institutional framework of the Council of Europe.

The Pompidou Group links policy, practice and science, focusing on the local implementation of drug programmes and activities. The Group provides a European-wide multidisciplinary forum where policy-makers, professionals and researchers can discuss, exchange information, and share ideas on all drug-related issues. The Pompidou Group also has a bridging role between EU and non-EU European countries and towards neighbouring countries in the Mediterranean region.

Much of the Pompidou Group's work is in demand reduction and is concerned with young people. A particularly innovative activity is the European Drug Prevention Prize, awarded bi-annually to up to three projects exhibiting excellent drug prevention combined with maximal youth participation. 

International legal framework

There are three major international drug control treaties: 

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has three pillars to its work programme field-based technical cooperation projects; research and analytical work; and work to assist States in the ratification and implementation of the relevant international treaties. The UNODC makes efforts to integrate and mainstream the gender perspective, particularly in its projects for the provision of alternative livelihoods and those against human trafficking. 

Other substances

Some other important psychoactive substances are not included in this political and legal framework – including tobacco, alcohol and inhalants.


In 2006, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy to support Member States in reducing alcohol-related harm (download pdf).


Tobacco is one of the most widely used psychoactive substances, but it has significant health risks. In response to these, the WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control was adopted by the World Health Assembly in 2003.

Inhalants (volatile substances)

Some ordinary commercial substances, even those available in the home, can be misused to achieve intoxication. VSA (volatile substance abuse) or inhalant abuse is a serious problem, leading to a number of deaths across Europe. For a scientific account of deaths in the UK, see For an example of how VSA is tackled in the UK see the Re-Solv website.

Preventing drugs-related problems

There are many different ways of tackling drug-related harms and problems: there are two types of ‘universal prevention' (that is, prevention aimed at the whole population) – actions that attempt to control supply and actions that attempt to reduce demand.

The supply of substances like alcohol and tobacco are controlled by, for example, not allowing sales to young people, only allowing sales through licensed premises and using taxation to increase the price to reduce demand.

Restricting the supply of controlled drugs is attempted by interdiction and law enforcement.

Attempts to reduce the demand for substances often involve education – especially education in school. EU-DAP (the European Drug Addiction Prevention Trial) is a positively-evaluated EU project (supported by the Pompidou Group), implemented in schools in several EU countries. This project is partly based on evidence that skills development and ‘normative education' can be effective methods of preventing drug problems.

Prevention can also be targeted at those thought to be most at risk of drugs problems. And, for those who are taking drugs, ‘indicated prevention' – generally involving harm reduction initiatives – may be appropriate; see the International Harm Reduction Alliance for more details.

Drugs and Young People

Much drug policy focuses on young people, because:

  • drug-taking mostly commences in the teenage years
  • people who start taking drugs when they are young are more vulnerable to drugs problems
  • drugs may have particularly negative effects on the growing organism
  • society aims to protect young people from harm
  • prevention aimed at young people may be able to prevent them from moving from drug experimentation to more prolonged drug-taking.  

The EU Health Strategy (2008-2013) states: ‘Improving the health of children, adults of working age and older people will help create a healthy, productive population and support healthy ageing now and in the future' The Staff Working Document accompanying this Strategy describes the health of children and young people as a particular concern:

‘Threats to health such as falling levels of physical activity and rising levels of obesity, harmful alcohol use, drug abuse and mental stress pose risks to the health of young people now and in future. Inter-sectoral collaboration should be enhanced to promote children and young people's health, building on and contributing to existing action on rights of the child, combating poverty and social exclusion, and promoting participation of young people, as well as on EC youth-oriented public health activities on tobacco, alcohol, drugs, environment, nutrition, obesity, safe sex and mental health.' (page 13)

The EU Youth Strategy quotes the EU Health Strategy and, in its ‘Field of Action 4 – Health and Sport' has the objective to : 

Encourage healthy living for young people and physical education, sporting activity and collaboration between youth workers, health professionals and sporting organisations with a focus on preventing and treating obesity, injury, addictions and substance abuse, and maintaining mental and sexual health.'

Text drafted by Richard Ives for the partnership between the European Commission and the Council of Europe in the field of youth

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