The COVID-19 pandemic has been having a devastating impact on mental health. Studies such as the one conducted by the French National Medicine Academy have shown a significant increase in depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder and suicide.
The CoviPrev survey launched by Santé Publique France showed that the prevalence of anxiety disorders doubled and life satisfaction dropped.
The lasting effects of the pandemic are clear and the impact on the upsurge of addictive behaviours leaves little doubt. This makes it even more important to put the issue at the top of the political agenda and to urgently propose effective policies and appropriate alternatives to minimise the risks of harmful substance use.
Addiction policies in France have shown success and the country is now faced with an opportunity to promote its approach at an international level during its Presidency of the Council of the European Union.
Fortunately, we have started witnessing the emergence of policies based on harm reduction across Europe which are meant to support people while putting aside the unrealistic concept of withdrawal through abstinence.
France was one of the first countries to acknowledge this principle and more recently this approach was included in an encouraging report drafted by the oncologist and MEP Véronique Trillet-Lenoir which was adopted by the European Parliament in February.
The recognition of the harm reduction approach by EU decision-makers marked a clear shift in perspective compared to political discussions on addictions a few years ago which were crowned by the false ideology of abstinence. However, the road ahead is still long and there is a need to accelerate our actions if we want to reach results soon.
By embracing a relative risk approach towards tobacco and alcohol, the European Parliament proved that it takes its role in EU health policy seriously. At the same time, it confirmed its determination to base its decisions on science and expert opinions. In fact, it is true that only through cooperation with practitioners who interact with addicts daily could we achieve realistic and sustainable policies.
Our lives are dominated by addictive behaviours
Contrary to popular belief, the October 2021 outage of social media platforms such as Instagram, Facebook, and Whatsapp for almost six hours demonstrated that addiction does not stop at tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs.
The withdrawal syndrome experienced by all those who felt a form of discomfort and invaded substitution platforms such as Twitter and Telegram highlighted the lack of logic in putting addictive behaviours into falsely labelled boxes.
Only an integrated approach will undoubtedly provide adequate solutions. Acceptance to remove these classifications, building on the interconnections between addictions, and listening to science are vital steps.
We should remember that addiction is a brain pathology just like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s diseases. In these cases, science has been able to guide the world towards progress. We need to apply a similar approach to addiction.
A clear signal
Scientists have repeatedly proven that harm reduction strategies can reduce morbidity and mortality and act as a gateway to adequate treatment of medical conditions. These theoretical results have proven their effectiveness in practice.
For example, the introduction of snus, an oral tobacco product, in Sweden led to a dramatic reduction of smoking and smoking-related diseases, such as lung cancer. Snus has in fact helped Sweden to be the first country to achieve the WHO goal on smoking reduction and encouraging results can also be seen in other countries such as Japan and the UK with the adoption of other smoking alternatives such as vaping products.
The European Parliament echoed these findings by recognising the role of e-cigarettes as a progressive way away from smoking and proposing differentiated legislation for e-cigarettes with regards to flavours. This is a first step in the right direction.
Looking at the future
Ultimately, in Europe’s quest to improve public health there is no checkmate for addiction and the European Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (EMCDDA) cannot be relegated to the role of a mere pawn.
Like the crucial role, the French Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT) took in 1996, we now need to devise a strategy that involves the latest data to deal with all forms of addiction and places the Lisbon-based agency and harm reduction solutions at the centre.
Addiction to tobacco, alcohol, illicit drugs, and behavioural phenomena are diseases with potentially lethal consequences if people are not offered a way out. Brisk action by policymakers focused on minimising risks can save thousands of lives.
A healthier Europe is within reach and France should leverage its harm reduction strategies and make its voice heard at EU level. The current Presidency of the Council of the European Union is an ideal opportunity to do so.