What’s new about adolescent drinking in the Nordic Countries? A report on Nordic studies of adolescent drinking habits in 2000–2018

Research output: Book/ReportCommissioned report


Adolescent drinking was on the increase all through the 1970s, the 1980s, and well into the 1990s. Researchers, decision-makers, and the public alike viewed the development as problematic and troubling. Then, sometime around the turn of the millennium, adolescent drinking in the Nordic countries started to decline. Drinking is now less common among underage young people in all Nordic countries compared to the situation some 10 or 15 years ago. Some differences between the Nordic countries nevertheless persist. This report is based on an overview of the most recent Nordic research literature on adolescent drinking.

The Nordic states offer a unique arena for exploring developments in alcohol-related issues. The Nordic countries have relatively high levels of universal state provision in health, social care, and education, among other things, making them egalitarian and social and economic differences relatively small. The Nordic states also share an alcohol policy which aims to reduce alcohol-related harm by restricting availability of alcohol through, for example, opening hours, pricing, and enforcing age limits. Looking at drinking habits among young people in the Nordic countries separately from those in other Western states may help to highlight developments of declining adolescent drinking that are similar and dissimilar in welfare states with restrictive alcohol policies and in other states. Declining trends in adolescent drinking have been observed in many Western countries, including the United States, Canada, Australia, and in most of Europe. A decline has taken place in countries with differing alcohol policies, differing economic situations, and with differing trends in adult drinking. Could it be that adolescent drinking is partly influenced by different factors than adult drinking?

The declining trend in drinking has been particularly strong in the Nordic countries.
The share of adolescents who have never drunk alcohol has increased markedly in all Nordic countries. Those adolescents who do drink alcohol drink smaller amounts and the number of drinking occasions has declined as well. Also, adolescents are older when they take their first drink and are intoxicated for the first time. There has also been a decline in other norm-breaking behaviour such as youth delinquency and truancy.

Youth drinking is nowadays least prevalent in Iceland and Norway, followed by Sweden and Finland. Denmark serves as the ‘Nordic exception’. It is the only Nordic country where adolescent drinking is above the European average. Still, adolescent drinking has also declined in Denmark, although less than in other Nordic countries. According to the ESPAD study (The European School Survey Project on Alcohol and Other Drugs), the share of adolescents in 2015 who had ever in their life drunk alcohol was 92% in Denmark, 81% in the Faroe Islands, 74% in Finland, 65% in Sweden, 57% in Norway, and 35% in Iceland. The ESPAD average was 80%. The share of adolescents who had been intoxicated during the last 30 days was 32% in Denmark, 13% in Finland, 10% in the Faroe Islands, 9% in Sweden, 8% in Norway, and 3% in Iceland. The ESPAD averaged was 13%.

Figures from some Nordic countries suggest that the declining trend in adolescent drinking might be coming to a halt or evening out at this low level, but it is still too early to talk about a break in the declining trend.

But why should we be interested in how much adolescents drink? The main reason is that adolescent drinking is connected to many types of harm, such as negative somatic and mental health outcomes, risky behaviour (such as unwanted or unsafe sex), and also the risk for accidents, violence, and victimisation. Harm can occur as a direct consequence of drinking or more indirectly as a consequence of a lifestyle where drinking is one part (for example, as a heightened risk for alcohol problems in adulthood).

Many direct harms of alcohol use in adolescence such as delinquent/risky/violent behaviour and health problems may be avoided when young people consume less alcohol. The overall consumption level of alcohol among adolescents has been shown to be connected to the level of self-reported alcohol-related problems. Also, the drinking style of the adolescents matters. Intoxication-oriented drinking and binge-drinking particularly may lead to unwanted outcomes both in adolescence and later in life. Early initiation of drinking, and early initiation of heavy drinking in particular, have a strong connection to problems in adulthood. Still, not all adolescents that drink hard continue to do so in adulthood, and not all adults who drink too much have done so in their youth. Preventive efforts should thus target entire populations of young people and not just those who drink heavily.

In most Nordic countries, a reduction in drinking has been observed among all kinds of drinkers, from light to heavy consumers. Research indicates that both those who drink a lot and those who drink less have started to drink less. Some groups, however, have not followed the trend: drinking has increased in certain socioeconomically deprived groups. There should be more research on these developments and a potential polarisation of drinking.

It is unclear whether this generation of adolescents that drinks less than previous generations will continue to do so when they reach adulthood. A few Finnish studies indicate that once they reach the legal age for drinking, young adults tend to drink similarly from one cohort to another. At the same time, there are signs that drinking might also be on the decline among young adults. More longitudinal studies following adolescents to adulthood are needed to study this question further.

Why have adolescents started to drink less, then? Many questions remain regarding the reasons for the decline in adolescent drinking over time. The main conclusion is that for the most part researchers are still looking for answers.

Nordic studies have found statistical support for the role of certain decisive factors behind the decline. For example, parents know where their adolescents spend their free time and have greater control of it. Secondly, adolescents find it harder to get hold of alcohol. Parents seem to employ stricter rules about alcohol use among teenagers than before. These factors and stress the importance of known mechanisms of influencing adolescent drinking: limiting the availability of alcohol, and the role of parents.

The relationship between parents and their children indeed seems to have undergone changes that may have contributed to the decline in drinking, but more studies are needed to examine in what ways this impacts adolescent drinking. It seems to matter that parents have become more restrictive regarding adolescent alcohol us. Parents of relatively heavy drinking adolescents as well as moderately drinking or abstaining adolescents all seem to have become more restrictive than previously.

Youth culture itself seems to have changed, too, possibly deflating the role of alcohol. However, what these changes are and how they might affect drinking is still under research. Also, this is where the Nordic countries appear to differ from one another: in Denmark drinking still seems to play an important role in youth culture, and remains relatively common despite the decline.

Adolescents today spend much time in front of digital screens. However, to days date, there is little or no support for the idea that this leads to less ‘hanging out’ in the streets and thus to less drinking. However, the area needs more research. It seems important to specify what type of device is used (computer, smartphone, etc.) and what the digital equipment is used for (games or different social media applications, etc.). Social media can indeed also be used to get access to alcohol. Factors such as mental health, social capital, and loneliness should be considered in this research.

Current Nordic research does not corroborate the claim that declining alcohol use would substitute alcohol with cannabis. Most young people who use cannabis also use alcohol, and the substances are usually used at the same time. Cannabis use has not increased among underage young people (although a recent Norwegian study suggests otherwise). However, attitudes toward cannabis use have become more lenient, and adolescents today do not perceive cannabis to be as risky as adolescents did for example 10 years ago. Also, cannabis use among young adults has increased in many Nordic countries.

Studies that try to answer why young people drink less today than young people did 10 or 15 years ago should further look at the following questions: adolescents’ living conditions and habits, use of time, leisure activities, family backgrounds and conditions, interaction with parents and peers, and alcohol use patterns. Official alcohol policy and economic factors are likely to influence the development as well as are (social) media and advertising.

Drinking cultures change slowly and in a collective manner. It is a question of many factors whether these generations of adolescents who have been more sober than previous ones will continue to drink less also in adulthood and whether future cohorts of adolescents will keep drinking less. The way that generations of young people experience both adolescence and adulthood indeed plays a part in how their drinking habits will turn out – and the economic, social, and especially alcohol political factors should not be forgotten, either. The changing role of parents and the way in which they control and influence their children’s drinking deserves to be rehearsed many times over.

Adolescents who grow up today seem to value school and education. They want to perform well, and drink and smoke less. However, they also experience more stress, anxiety, and disrupted sleep. The apparently deteriorating mental health of adolescents, coinciding with declining alcohol use, has puzzled scholars. It clearly needs to be addressed in future studies. Some studies point at certain mental health symptoms in adolescence heightening the risk for alcohol problems in adulthood.
Original languageEnglish
Place of PublicationStockholm
PublisherNordic Welfare Centre
Number of pages102
ISBN (Electronic)978-91-88213-39-6
Publication statusPublished - 7 Mar 2019
MoE publication typeD4 Published development or research report or study

Fields of Science

  • 5141 Sociology

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