How Iceland’s Youth got Sober Fast (and ours could too)

The story begins nearly thirty years ago, in the early 1990s, when Icelandic teenagers drank heavier than most other European teens. This likely had a lot to do with the fact that Iceland prohibited alcohol from 1915 until March 1, 1989, a day the country now refers to as Beer Day. In a very short time, “…beer became the most popular type

of alcoholic beverage, changing the structure of the alcohol sales, and shaping drinking habits,” as quoted from Nordic Studies on Drugs and Alcohol.

Things were very bad. By 1998, an overwhelming 42% of fifteen and sixteen-year-olds reported having been drunk in the last month. Also, 17% of them smoked marijuana regularly, and 23% of them smoked cigarettes daily.

Harvey Milkman is an American psychology professor who teaches at Reykjavik University. He was instrumental in reversing the Icelandic youth’s drinking problem. However, he remembers the 1990s in Iceland: “You couldn’t walk the streets in downtown Reykjavik on a Friday night because it felt unsafe. There were hordes of teenagers getting in-your-face drunk.”

Today, Iceland just about tops the charts for having the most sober youth. Remember when 42% of teens in Iceland were getting drunk once a month? Now it’s 5%. Marijuana use has fallen to 7% and only 3% of Icelandic youngsters smoke cigarettes. That’s rather impressive.

It’s all thanks to a program called Youth in Iceland, and it’s a bit radical.

From here, the story takes a 3,650 mile turn to Denver, Colorado, where a youth program organized by Milkman in 1991 sparked what would become the victory in the war on drugs for Iceland. As beautiful and successful as the story is, the US will not follow suit. Reasons exist for why the US won’t do it. Reasons exist for why the US should do it. Read and decide for yourself.

Project Self-Discovery

The entire idea behind Youth in Iceland, (and all the other programs it spawned – see below), is thanks to Harvey Milkman’s doctoral dissertation. His thesis said that people would choose either heroin or amphetamines depending on how they dealt with stress. Those who numbed the pain, so to speak, chose heroin. Those who actively confronted it chose amphetamines. His college paper went places.

Soon after publication, Milkman was hired by the US National Institute on Drug Abuse. His job was to research the answers to seemingly simple questions: Why do people begin using drugs? Why do people continue using drugs? When do people reach their limits of drug abuse? When and why do people stop using drugs? When do people relapse?

While researching his answers, Milkman had his “version of the ‘aha’ experience,” as he told Mosaic Science in an article about Youth in Iceland. “So I got to the question about the threshold for abuse and the lights went on. They could be on the threshold for abuse before they even took the drug, because it was their style of coping that they were abusing,” he continued.

Milkman started to see how kids might be addicted to changes in their brain chemistry caused by the drugs, as opposed to addicted to the drug itself. Whichever drug a kid chose was merely a pathway to that desired change in consciousness. Milkman called it behavioral addiction, and it led to another, bigger idea: Project Self-Discovery.

“Why not orchestrate a social movement around natural highs, around people getting high on their own brain chemistry? Because it seems obvious to me that people want to change their consciousness, without the deleterious effects of drugs,” added Milkman.

With this idea, plus a $1.2 million grant from the government, Project Self-Discovery was born. Kids were told they could learn anything they wanted to, from music to kickboxing to chemistry to painting. The program was never called a treatment of any kind, but only took in kids from age 14 that were drug abusers and/or committing crimes.

The Evolution of a Youth Program

Changes in brain chemistry came naturally, and the learning experiences offered kids alternatives to drugs. Plus, life skills were being learned. The program was to last three months for each child. Some ended up staying for years. “The main principle was that drug education doesn’t work because nobody pays attention to it. What is needed are the life skills to act on that information,” said Milkman.

Shortly after launching his project, Dr. Milkman, as he was now called, was invited to Iceland to discuss his work. He ended up becoming a consultant at Iceland’s first residential adolescent drug treatment center, in a town named Tindar. He would visit Iceland regularly, giving lectures and consulting. His ideas caught the attention of Inga Dora Sigfusdottir, a researcher with University of Iceland.

Her idea was to use healthy alternatives to drugs, like Project Self-Discovery, but not to treat kids with drug problems. She wanted to prevent drug abuse altogether. Inga Dora, her brother Jon Sigfusson (an equally involved psychologist), and Dr. Milkman all collaborated, and by 1992 had formed the beginnings of what would become Youth in Iceland. Those beginnings came in the form of a questionnaire given to every single 14, 15, and 16-year-old student in Iceland. Some example questions:

  • Have you ever tried alcohol?
  • If yes, when did you last have a drink?
  • Have you ever been drunk?
  • Have you tried cigarettes?
  • If yes, how often do you smoke?
  • How much time do you spend with your parents?
  • Do you have a close relationship with them?
  • What activities do you take part in?

The results of these surveys showed the hard data that proved how bad Icelandic youth had gotten. Those high percentages you remember from before came from these surveys, taken in 1992, in 1995, and again in 1997. Aside from how many kids took drugs, the research team began to recognize factors that contributed to both sobriety and drug abuse.

For example, participating in activities, spending time with parents, feeling cared about in school, and not being outside late were four factors shown to contribute greatly to a drug-free lifestyle. On the contrary, lacking these factors contributed to drug use. It was clear something had to be done, and the research team knew what it was. Nobody knew how radical it would be.

When the country of Iceland went to war on drugs, it went to war.

The mayor of Reykjavik also recognized at this time, around 1999, that a change was needed. So, the mayor, Dr. Milkman, and the Sigfusdottir siblings together formed a national plan for Iceland, based on all the related research that had been done so far. That plan became known as…

Youth in Iceland

The national plan was more of a national makeover. Laws were changed, and new laws were made. Parents were basically forced to be more involved with their children. Government money was poured into the program, and was given to the less fortunate. The surveys of teenagers continue to happen every year, producing up-to-date information. Here’s a breakdown of what happened once Youth in Iceland officially began:


The legal age for tobacco purchases became 18, and for alcohol purchases became 20. (They got us by one year). Also, in a very bold move, all advertising for both tobacco and alcohol products was banned nationwide. (Imagine that happening here). Furthermore, it became illegal for children between ages 13 and 16 to be outside after 10 PM in winter, and midnight in summer. All but the advertising (and only to a certain degree) are still in effect today.


One more law was made when Youth in Iceland went into effect: EVERY school in Iceland had to establish parent organizations, and had to create a school council with parental representatives. (Imagine that happening in America). There was even a national organization formed, called Home and School, which focused on four major areas involving parents and their children:

– Spending more time with their kids overall, as opposed to occasional ‘quality’ time

– Talking to their kids about their lives

– Knowing who their kids’ friends are

– Keeping their kids inside during nighttime

Parents were also made to sign agreements. They varied depending on circumstance and child age, but for the most part parents had to agree to the above four things. Also, pledges to not allow unsupervised parties, to not purchase alcohol for minors, and to keep an eye out for others were highly recommended.


Government funding increased for sports, music, art, dance, and other such organizations. The reasoning was simply to make kids feel like part of a group, make them feel good. As discovered by our trusty research team, drug and alcohol use decreases naturally when replaced with healthy activities. (The brain is equally satisfied, it turns out, with drawing as it is with drinking).

Low-income families were given the chance to participate in such activities as well. For example, in Reykjavik, where 1/3 of Iceland lives, qualifying families are given 35,000 krona (approximately $300) every year, in order to help fund their children’s participation in organized activities.

The Surveys (and their current results)

As mentioned, the school surveys have continued annually since the inception of Youth in Iceland. As of 2012, the number of children that spent regular time with their parents on weekdays doubled, going from 23 to 46 percent. The number of children actively involved in organized sports nearly doubled, going from 24 to 42 percent. Also, as mentioned in the beginning of this article, tobacco use, alcohol use, and marijuana use all fell dramatically among children.

“This is the most remarkably intense and profound study of stress in the lives of teenagers that I have ever seen,” says Dr. Milkman, who was a psychology student in the 1970s, and has seen it all. “I’m just so impressed by how well it is working.”

But Wait, there’s More

Youth in Iceland was (and is) working so well, that in 2006, Jon Sigfusson launched his own program, called Youth in Europe. The surveys were again the core of the program. Seventeen countries have so far participated, and as of recently, nearly 100,000 surveys have been returned to Iceland for analyzation. The same factors that contributed to sobriety and drug abuse were found. However, some countries continue to refuse to cooperate, and others simply prefer treatment to prevention.

Numbers overall aren’t necessarily impressive. Kaunas, Lithuania is the exception.

“Since 2006, the city has administered the questionnaires five times, and schools, parents, healthcare organizations, churches, the police, and social services have come together to try to improve kids’ wellbeing and curb substance use,” according to the Mosaic Science article. Flash forward to 2014. Alcohol abuse fell 25% and tobacco use fell by over 30%.

Youth in Europe is not nearly as stable or successful as Youth in Iceland, which makes sense which you consider the fact that it’s one country against seventeen (participating) countries. Still, everyone involved with both programs wonders why the world isn’t fully on board. The results are undeniable, especially for Iceland, and everyone should have a ‘Youth in’ program, right? Well, read and decide for yourself.

Youth in America?

The chances honestly are that it would not work.

Iceland has a population of 330,000 people. America has a population of roughly three hundred and fifty million. That’s a major difference, especially when it comes to the number of low-income families without the resources to have their children participate in such ‘Youth in’ programs. Even worse, America is home to just about 1.5 million homeless people. Do you think our government is about to give $300 to each and every family under these circumstances?

In Conclusion

Yes, every country should have a ‘Youth in’ program. Yes, every country would surely benefit from laws that make it all but impossible to have a drunk and stoned youth. And yes, every country would be healthier without tobacco/alcohol advertising, and with age limits on the purchase of such products.

It’s just not going to happen until prevention becomes the priority.

90% of American drug addicts began using before age 18. Stop the youth from doing drugs and drinking, and you stop the world from doing so.

[Please note that all information and all quotes that are unsourced come from the Mosaic Science article, linked again here.]

2 thoughts on “How Iceland’s Youth got Sober Fast (and ours could too)

  1. mary maher

    Very interesting article.
    i work with adults in the north inner city in Dublin and I am very interested in the parenting courses that Iceland ran and how Iceland motivated parents to get involved. I think Ireland needs to look at programmes like this.
    I would love some contact details of people involved in this programme in Iceland.

  2. Kevin Lawlor

    I am most impressed with reading how the Project for Youth was initially developed and the positive consequences that followed. I am of a similar viewpoint for prevention as a priority with younger adolescents but sadly; as you reference in the information and from my own professional Counselling / Psychology experience of currently 25 years; I perceive that there is too much emphasis per se on the treatment status quo rather than the prevention. I have been fortunate to have experienced working in a variance of environments related to drug / alcohol treatment where the process is not orientated around the individuals in attendance but fundamentally on the concept of the treatment program.


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