Swedish teens shun condoms and cigarettes

Swedish teens shun condoms and cigarettes
Photos: tkachuk; Claudio Bresciani/Scanpix
Swedish teens drink and smoke less than their peers in most other countries, but when it comes to sex, young people in Sweden are far from being the most careful.

A new report published by the World Health Organization (WHO) paints a mixed picture when it comes to clean living by Sweden’s youth, especially concerning the sexual habits of Swedish teenage girls.

Not only are 15-year-old Swedish girls more likely to have sex than their peers in other countries, but they are also far more likely to do so unprotected.

Lily Eriksson of the Swedish National Institute of Public Health (SNIPH), the agency responsible for compiling the Swedish statistics, believes that Sweden could do more to stress the dangers of sexually transmitted diseases.

“Even though we have a very good sex education curriculum, there hasn’t been as much emphasis on the dangers of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases,” she told The Local.

Nearly 40 percent of 15-year-old girls in Sweden failed to use a condom the last time they had sex, compared with the overall average of 28 percent. Only girls from Romania reported using condoms less often. In contrast, only 5 percent of girls from top ranked Spain said they didn’t use a condom.

And statistics for Swedish boys aren’t much better, with 31 percent saying they last had intercourse without a condom, compared to an average of 19 percent. Only boys in Slovakia were more likely to have unprotected sex.

Erikssson thinks that part of the explanation lies with Sweden’s relatively relaxed attitudes toward sex.

“We have a very open and liberal attitude about sex and talking about sex here in Sweden and I think that as a result, Swedish young people probably answer questions about their sexual habits a bit more truthfully than youngsters in other countries,” she said.

However, Swedish 15-year-old boys do appear to be less promiscuous than both the opposite sex in Sweden, as well as their male peers in other countries.

Only 25 percent reported having had sex, compared with 30 percent for boys overall, and 32 percent for 15-year-old Swedish girls.

But the portrait of loose-living Swedish teenagers begins to change when taking figures for smoking and drinking into account.

On average, young people in Sweden start smoking later and to a lesser extent than their counterparts in other countries.

Only 3 percent of Swedish 13-year-old girls and 1 percent of boys report smoking once a week, compared with an overall average of 6 percent for both genders.

Figures for 15-year-olds in Sweden are similarly low, with only 9 percent of girls and 8 percent of boys smoking once a week, well below the average of 19 percent.

Eriksson theorizes that anti-smoking campaigns are part of the explanation.

“We’ve devoted a great deal of resources toward efforts to prevent young people from starting to smoke. It’s been a high priority,” she said.

Swedish 15-year-olds are also less than one third as likely to experiment with cannabis compared to their peers elsewhere.

And while Sweden has a reputation of being a land of heavy drinkers, figures from the study suggest that Swedish teenagers start drinking later in life and in lower amounts then young people elsewhere.

On average, 15 percent of 15-year-olds polled in the study report having been drunk for the first time before they turned 13.

In Sweden, the comparable figures were only 10 percent for both boys and girls, less than half the level reported in Nordic neighbours Finland and Denmark.

England tops the list for boys, with 24 percent saying they’d been intoxicated before entering their teen years. And girls from Estonia report the highest level of pre-teen drinking, at 35 percent.

The percentage of Swedish 15-year-olds reporting regular alcohol use was also well below the study average of 26 percent, with 9 percent of girls and 15 percent of boys saying they take a drink at least once a week.

“I think Sweden has a very strong alcohol policy and I think it works,” said Eriksson.