Tuesday, 17 December 2013


Ever wondered what the fastest growing category of consumption is in post-crisis Greece?

Well it's the same one as in pre-crisis Greece. Drugs. Reports of 'sisa' scything through the streets of Athens, booming HIV infection rates among injecting users and the setting up of Greece's first supervised consumption room back in November may have given observers the impression that drugs are confined to the fringes of Greek society.

The fact, however, is that the formal household sector is chasing highs too, and has been for years. Only in three out of the last eleven years have Greek households failed to clock up a double-digit increase in the use of 'narcotics' as defined here, with the total amount spent in 2011 equal to roughly EUR1.2bn (or EUR110 per person) in 2010 prices.

What you can see from the graph to the right, however, is that consumption growth was in freefall pre-crisis, and the trend has reversed since, despite (or possibly because of) falling incomes.

The figures, however, are confusing in several ways. For one, Greece appears to be better at collecting data on narcotics-related spending than any other country in the EU. You can see for yourselves - most countries are unable to publish figures, and those that do, publish unrealistically low figures anyway. Going by Eurostat's figures, Greece alone accounts for half of the EU's drugs consumption. Frankly, that is impossible.

On the flip side, Greece's own figures may be inaccurate too. 100 Euros' worth of drugs for every man, woman and child sounds a bit high, particularly so when one realises that regular drug users are in fact quite rare. In Greece, for instance, only about 15% of high school age boys and 7% of girls had ever used any illicit drugs in 2011 (data here). The figures are quite similar for adults, with recent users making up nearly half of all lifetime users (data here). So if, say, about 5% of the population (allowing for under-reporting) are responsible for 90% of the total spend, that means they would each spend about EUR2,000 per year on their habits. It's possible, but it's a big stretch - and in 2011 no less. Remember, these are people upstanding enough to sit through a household consumption questionnaire. A real problem user wouldn't be able to sit through that without a fix of something, I doubt I would either.

The consumption data of course come from Household Budget Surveys (HBS) run by national statistics agencies such as Greece's ELSTAT. Harmonisation and comparability are, unlike with some other datasets, not a huge priority, so it pays to look at the original questionnaire and methodology. In the case of Greece, you can check out the full documentation of the latest survey round (2011) here or a more complete version (with questionnaires) in Greek here. What really stands out to me is that none of the questionnaires actually include any explicit questions on the use of narcotics - which makes sense. But in that case, ELSTAT must literally be relying on respondents to volunteer information about their drug habits, and they must be much more willing to do so than their fellow Europeans.

Time to snoop around a little.



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