Panel: young people and political youth organisations are a big challenge

Out of today’s political youth organisations could emerge the future leaders of our countries. NordAN is focusing on these organisations in 2019 and had a special session on that at the recent Helsinki Conference. Kalle Dramstad from IOGT-NTO moderated a discussion involving Emi Maeda from EHYT’s KUPLA project, Nijole Gostautaite Midttun from the Lithuanian Tobacco and Alcohol Control Coalition, Kjetil Vesteraas from Juvente, Norway and Lukas Galkus from International Youth Health Organization.

As a follow-up to that discussion, we asked the participants to sum up their thoughts and points. Emi Maeda, who is working with students substance use culture (KUPLA project), kicked it off by raising the central question for others, and also the readers, to chew on. “We need to think about what we as organisations can offer to young policymakers. “Information” and “opportunities to affect our organisation” might not be enough. How do we include young activists and policymakers and what kind of concrete and tangible things can we offer them?”

Kalle Dramstad, who is working as a policy officer at the IOGT-NTO‘s Brussels office, agreed that “civil society organisations have to engage with young people directly. Not only by making sure we have activities that include and are tailored for young people but also make sure to actively engage with those young people that are involved politically and will shape the political debate, internal and external to the parties, in the future. We haven’t been engaging enough with these young people – we haven’t created enough opportunities for proponents of ambitious alcohol policies to develop, build platforms and advance. That is something that the alcohol industry and various forms of free-market think tanks opposed to alcohol policy do well and we could and should learn from.”

Nijole Gostautaite Midttun, the president of NTAKK network in Lithuania, continued from there and also raised the problem around the industry’s role. “I think it is very important to draw attention towards the enormous influence that industry and marketing have on the behaviour of the young people. They also seem to be more susceptible to influences through social networks, peer opinions, and media in general, while being less critical to the messages that are being promoted. Freedom is becoming more of a concept of an ease of consumption, rather than opportunities and having choices in life. It is also important to note how similar are the tactics of different industries and how effective was the tobacco industry on infecting the new generations of users with nicotine addiction through novel vaping products and electronic cigarettes. And how helpless were regulators and countries. Prevention of the use of psychoactive substances should target multiple behaviours and focus on health. And we should focus on encouraging cooperation among youth organisations in the field of public health, hoping that their members and influence eventually will seep into the agenda of the political youth organisations.”

Lukas Galkus, vice-president for youth research at the International Youth Health Organization, stresses that there is much to do when it comes to these youth organisations. “We are not engaging political youth organisations at all. Most of them have some stands and views on alcohol policies, but there are almost no internal policies or provisions about national alcohol policies. We should work more with and for political youth organisations in order to raise their awareness on the topic and ensure they see alcohol policies as an important political topic. In addition, regular work with young people has proved that taking a multidisciplinary approach of health facilitates greater involvement of youth in alcohol topic. Therefore, in order to ensure that political youth organisations start working on alcohol policies, we should enhance the importance of health policies first.”

Kjetil Vesteraas, the managing director of Juvente in Norway, compares the different views and positions that young people have on alcohol and drug policies. “The relatively rapid changes in drug policy appeal to youth in a different way than the incremental changes in alcohol policy. The public debate on alcohol policy is usually fairly civilised, whereas the drug policy debate has seen an unprecedented level of hostile rhetoric. This creates an environment where simple slogans rule, and labels of good and evil are used extensively. This «warlike» condition will force you to choose sides. This appeals to certain groups of youth, that will invest a lot of effort into the debate. Alcohol policy, on the other hand, is not about huge, sweeping changes. That’s a debate about tweaking political tools, and that, to most young people, is boring, as you can’t put any identity into such a debate, except if you’re politically active in general.

I think that it is generally understood that alcohol policy is for everyone in society, that it is designed to both provide and protect, and that conflicting needs must be considered carefully. Drug policy, on the other hand, is usually only about those who use drugs, and more specifically, those who have an addiction. This makes the preventive aspect of drug policy either irrelevant or in direct opposition to «helping those in need». There should be more effort to make sure that drug policymakers know that drug policies affect everyone in society and that the same considerations, prevention- and «do no harm» approach that applies to alcohol policy, also should apply to drug policy.

Youth are living in a world where truths about both alcohol and drugs are few and far between. A Norwegian study from 2006 revealed that the competence level regarding drugs and alcohol actually decreased among youth aged 13-19 as they progressed through the education system. This shows that a lack of education does not mean that youth won’t seek information, it just means that the chances of them finding incorrect information increases. The misunderstandings will then increasingly make up their knowledge base as their education progresses.

This mechanism is enhanced in the wake of the social media expansion. A recent study from Stanford found that the number of interactions with a claim that cannabis could cure cancer compared with the correct information from American cancer associations was 4500:1. This means that incorrect, unsubstantiated and outrageous claims flood the reality of youth. With this in mind, there is a need for a huge push for prevention efforts, based on the Icelandic model, to ensure that the current harmful lack of correct information is reduced. There is no way that this can be done by NGOs alone, it must be an integral part of the education system.”