The "Vices" Among Latin American Youth

Vices can be defined as activities that are addictive and harmful to individuals. Generally, alcohol, drugs, tobacco, gambling, and prostitution are considered vices.  The harm to the individuals can come in the form of damages to physical health (e.g. lung cancer from smoking, liver disease from alcoholism, venereal diseases from prostitution), personal finance (e.g. bankruptcy from gambling), career (e.g. being dismissed from the job for alcohol-related absenteeism) and personal/social lives.  Although the potential ravages of these vices are well-known, individuals may find themselves addicted due to either physical or psychological dependency.  

One might think that this is the perfect scenario for government intervention.  A harmful practice should be banned by legal decree, with the corresponding tools of law enforcement (such as banishing access and punishing usage).  The best known case of governmental anti-vice intervention is the Prohibition era (1920-1933) in the United States of America.  Alcohol was criminalized, but the paradox was that the consumption of alcohol rose dramatically as drinking became glamorous and trendy.  At the same time, the Prohibition led to the rise of criminal organizations which capitalized on the profit potential of the tremendous demand for illegal alcohol.  Mob wars broke out in open streets, politicians and policemen became corrupted and bad-quality liquor blinded and killed consumers.  In the end, the cure was perhaps much more deleterious than the original disease.

The failure of the Prohibition led to a more realistic appraisal of the status of the vices.  It is clear that people want to choose their lifestyles and they will resist or circumvent the state's attempts to regulate their personal behavior.  This is particularly true when a so-called vice (such as the consumption of alcohol) is already steeped in historical and socio-cultural practice.  Rather than attempting to suppress 'vice' through criminalization, the alternate approaches today are controlled regulation (such as the imposition of 'vice' or 'sin' taxes) and education.  Existing consumers are disincentivized through high prices of legal products and services.  In addition, new potential consumers are informed of the potential hazards of these products.  Finally, for everyone, a series of safety nets are constructed in the form of prevention, intervention and treatment.  

The first net --- prevention --- is the decisive counteraction to stop something from happening. Prevention provides individuals with information and resources to raise their awareness of both risky and healthy behaviors, and helps shape environments to promote health and protect people from harm.  The second net --- intervention ---  targets those who have already begun to abuse alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs, with the goal of preventing further use.  The third net --- treatment --- is  for those who are experiencing alcohol, tobacco, or other drug problems with the now more difficult goal of discontinuing their behavior.

In order to implement these programs effectively, it is important to know the most critical stages of life in which the targeted behaviors are likely to occur.  Specfiically, the most important target groups are young people who may acquire lifelong addictions.  We will now refer to some survey data from the TGI Latina study.  Within the larger study, there are 6,869 males and 5,909 females between the ages of 12 to 21 years old who were interviewed during the second half of 2001 and the first half of 2002 in eight Latin American countries (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Venezuela).  Over all, the consumption rates of alcohol, beer and tobacco are as follows:

By gender, the consumptions rates are as follows

There is clearly a vast difference in consumption by gender.  Our stated interest is directed towards the consumption rates by age, which we have just shown should be qualified by gender as well.  In the next three charts, we show the consumption rates by age and sex.  In each case, the consumption rate increased with age within sex.  In the case of alcohol, there is a jump for males around the ages of 17 to 18 years old, whereas the increase is slow but steady for females.  In the case of beer, the age of 18 appears to be the threshold at which beer consumption becomes almost a social obligation.  In the case of tobacco, the jump starts occur around the ages of 17 to 18 for males and at 18 for females.  Those jump points would be the most critical junctures at which prevention and intervention can be applied productively.

We are very much guilty of sensationalism when we describe these consumption behaviors as vices in the title of this article.  Beer is in fact a socially acceptable beverage in many parts of the world, and constitutes a major industry in Latin America.  The consumption of alcoholic wine may in fact be beneficial to health.  Still, there would be agreement that anyone who has to drink a dozen of bottles of beer a day probably has a major dependency or lifestyle problem.

(source: TGI Latina)

(source: TGI Latina)

(source: TGI Latina)

(posted by Roland Soong, 11/21/2002)

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