Pricing policies and youth substance use

Some policies are not relevant in specific contexts or populations and it is important that policies are also targeted to the needs of specific youth subcultures. For example, underage drinking and binge drinking are prevalent among young people living in cultures where alcohol is highly accessible and inexpensive, and in urban centres where sanctions against impaired driving are less of a deterrent for young people. In such contexts, young people still suffer from alcohol and drug-related injuries, which can account for as much as 20 per cent of all accident and emergency room visits (Hoskins and Benger, 2012).

Pricing laws clearly impact adult consumption behaviour and consequences, and recent reviews also suggest that such benefits also extend to adolescents (Xu and Chaloupka, 2011), including benefits to academic performance and risky sexual behaviours. It has also been suggested that minimum pricing laws have the potential to be specifically relevant to the prevention of alcohol-related harm among young people, owing to their limited financial independence.

Nevertheless, in many Western countries, alcohol is marketed so cheaply that a person can purchase enough alcohol to become legally intoxicated for less than the cost of lunch. Limiting accessibility to single-serving containers or extra-large container sizes and minimum pricing will no doubt reduce excessive drinking among young people. These principles should also be explored in contexts where drug policies involve decriminalization. It will be very important to adopt concurrently policies that will allow governments to control drug prices in ways that are relevant to young people. Otherwise, young people will continue to access cheaper, unregulated, and often unsafe alternatives to the more expensive, safer option.

It should also be noted that young people do not necessarily choose to consume the cheapest brands, and price does not appear to dictate their behaviour in the same way as it might for adults (e.g. Albers et al., 2014). The relationship between socioeconomic status and drug use in adolescence can in some cases be the inverse of that observed in adults (Patrick et al., 2012). Policies deemed evidenced-based from research on adults should not be directly applied to young people without proper evaluation, and there is a need for more youth-focused research in this area. Another advantage to regulated drug markets is that marketing strategies can be developed to set prices according to behavioural economics research which will tell us at what point certain attributes of a drug (e.g. price, brand, availability, potency) will tip a young person over into an illegal drug market. Simply focusing on legal age limits and enforcement can detrimentally interfere with our ability to understand and shape youth drug use towards safer alternatives.

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