Health is the theme of this year's world drug campaign to be launched on International Day against Drug Abuse and Illicit Trafficking on Saturday. The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has pegged its campaign on the tagline – “think health – not drugs' and aims at informing youngsters about the harmful effects of drugs.

If it is not obvious by now, here is the plain fact — addictive substances, including alcohol, tobacco and drugs, have far-reaching impacts on the health of those using them.

S. Nambi, professor of psychiatry, Chettinad Medical College and Hospital, says addictive substances are a way to escape the pain and/or unpleasantness of reality, by providing a high or feeling of elation.

So, is there a way to predict who might develop an addiction?

“About 10 – 15 people out of 100 get hooked because of the interaction between the drug and brain chemistry. If you have a history of addiction in the family, then your chances are higher, but otherwise it is difficult to say who those 10-15 people may be in a 100,” Dr. Nambi adds.

Similarly, it is also impossible to predict when use will turn to abuse and then to dependence, says V. Thirumagal, counsellor, T. T. Ranganathan Clinical Research Foundation.

“This can happen at any time, depending on how much is being used, with what frequency and the toxicity of the substance,” she adds. Also, pharmacologically, some drugs have a strong impact on the brain and produce dependence quickly.

Rama Sundaralingam, retired Interpol drugs expert, says the clear physical symptoms of drug dependence are many — high pulse rate, elevated blood pressure, vomiting, nausea, sweating, coma, convulsions, epileptic attacks, sleep slurring, and fatigue. There are also far-reaching effects on mental health — disorientation, depression, psychosis, aggression, memory loss and suicidal tendencies.

“When a person is going to be periodically using a substance for a long time, he or she develops tolerance and has to increase quantity day by day. Eventually it leads to several physical and psychological symptoms and severe social and occupational impairment. Withdrawal leads to serious side-effects,” Dr. Nambi says expanding the definition of addiction.

The focus, rightly, is on preventing youth from picking up the habit. Ms. Thirumagal says “Clearly, people who use substances before they are 21 years have a higher chance of losing control.” Teenage is the period for testing the limits for many things. There is, often, immense peer pressure to take up habits such as smoking, drinking and drugs.

Dr. Elango clarifies, “All youngsters begin with ‘Let me try it' attitude. For some, this gradually leads to pleasure-seeking and then, compulsive behaviour.” The ideal is to prevent the very first instance. In the West, efforts are made to delay the first drink, much virtue being seen in postponing habit formation.

Mr. Sundaralingam says the battle is better won in the classroom than anywhere else.

“Parents and teachers need to understand the drug problem that affects the youngsters,” he says. It is essential to talk to them about addictive substances, understand their problems and concerns, be aware of their activities in school and outside. The message should be “It is extremely risky, keep off,” psychiatrists add.

More In: Chennai | Columns