Increasingly, Germans are becoming addicted to legal drugs, but the number of deaths from hard drugs fell, a new report says.
Legal drugs pose the greatest problem
More and more Germans are becoming addicted to legal drugs like tobacco, alcohol and prescription medications, according to a yearly report presented in Berlin by National Drugs Coordinator Sabine Bätzing.
Bätzing noted that while the use of -- and addiction to -- legal drugs has increased, the number of deaths related to hard drugs is on the decline, falling to its lowest point since 1989. In 2005, 1,326 died from hard drug use. But addiction to soft drugs in Germany had risen to "alarming" proportions, bringing a wide array of health and economic damages, she said.
"There is no reason to sound the all-clear" Bätzing said, adding that the fight against drug and addiction problems "is one of the most important political and economic problems of our time."
Younger teens use cannabis
Bätzing had a message for those who think drug problems don't apply to them. With more than 110,000 deaths related to tobacco and 40,000 to alcohol each year -- and taking into consideration the approximately 1.7 million Germans addicted to prescription medication -- addiction "clearly touches everyone, be it as a victim or a family member."
The age of first-time pot smokers in Germany is down to around 16 years
The report raised an alarm about cannabis use, noting that the age of the first-time user appears to be getting younger -- currently around 16.4 years. Cannabis remains the country's most widely used illegal drug, with more than one-quarter of teenagers saying they have tried it.
"The earlier young people reach for a joint, the greater the risk of psychological addiction," said Bätzing.
Anti-smoking campaign underway
The drug czarina is also on a campaign against youth tobacco smoking. She argues that in general, non-smokers need more legal protection, and noted there were 3,000 deaths attributable to passive smoke in 2005.
By March, 2008, some 90 percent of restaurants are expected to meet a goal of reserving half of their seats for non-smokers. Non-smoking sections in restaurants are currently a rare exception in Germany.
"If they don't manage that, we will see to it that they have to do so by law," she said. By March, the country's restaurants had barely reached the stated goal of having 30 percent of restaurants reserve 30 percent of their seats for non-smokers.
On a positive note, the report showed teenage smoking has fallen. In 2001, some 28 percent of teens between age 12 and 17 smoked, whereas that number was down to 20 percent in 2005. Preventive measures like disallowing cigarette sales to under-16-year-olds, coupled with an increase in the tobacco sales tax, appeared to have worked, she said.
Tax on alcohol aimed at youth
A study on the increase in tobacco taxes showed that more than 6 percent of those who gave up smoking used the last tax increase as an excuse to kick the habit. Bätzing said she regards this as successful health policy in action.
Alcopops -- pre-mixed, sweet alcohol drinks -- are popular among youth
In addition, an added tax on alcopops -- soft drinks containing alcohol that are aimed specifically at the youth market -- seems to have been effective. The number of teens who said they drank alcopops once a month or more fell by half.
The report also shed light on an ongoing argument within the government coalition about whether or not heroin should be distributed to terminally ill patients. Bätzig said she wants to make it easier for the terminally ill to get access to heroin for pain relief; she would like to pass a law in that direction.
A model project with some 1,000 terminally ill patients in seven cities showed that using heroin had more benefits than its substitute, methadone. But the Chancellor Angela Merkel's CDU party has rejected the plan.