Pubdate: Sat, 13 Aug 2005
Source: International Herald-Tribune (International)
Copyright: International Herald Tribune 2005
Author: Elisabetta Povoledo
Bookmark: (Cocaine)


MILAN Italy famously shuts down in August, and that may explain the
sleepy response to a report last weekend that drug abuse in northern
Italy has been significantly underestimated.

But acknowledging that cocaine use has surged, Italian authorities
said they were treating the findings as a wake-up call.

Officials are so concerned with the rise in cocaine consumption that
they plan to initiate a nationwide awareness campaign targeting young
people this autumn.

"We're looking closely at the issue, which is very preoccupying,"
Carlo Giovanardi, minister for relations with Parliament, said in a
telephone interview.

A scientist at the World Health Organization in Geneva said also that
the latest report and other research indicated that cocaine had become
democratized and was no longer the prerogative of the wealthy.

The report, an analysis of the waters of the Po River, found that the
waterway carried "the equivalent of about 4 kilograms of cocaine per
day," or 8.8 pounds, indicating that consumption of the drug was
substantially higher in the area than that given in official national

Reacting to the report, Sebastiano Vitali, the director of operations
of Italy's anti-drug police, said that their data showed that seizures
of cocaine had been highest in Lombardy, the province where the study
had been carried out.

"Certainly, cocaine is more present in wealthier, industrial cities,"
Vitali added. He said he could not comment on the scientific data.

The Po, Italy's longest river, runs through the northern part of the
country from the Alps to the Adriatic. The research covered a section
of the Po from the industrial city of Turin to Pavia; it excluded
Milan, which the scientists said deserved a separate study.

The findings were published by the Mario Negri Institute for
Pharmacological Research and posted on a British health Web site. The
method used - analysis of river water to monitor community drug abuse
- has caught the interest of drug experts.

The researchers discovered that water samples collected along one
section of the Po indicated that around 40,000 doses of cocaine per
day were being consumed in the surrounding catch basin of about five
million people. Based on this data, the study estimates that 2.7
percent of Italians aged 15 to 34 use cocaine every day. This greatly
exceeds official national figures indicating that 1.1 percent of the
same age group uses cocaine at least once a month.

To arrive at the numbers, researchers at the institute in Milan
measured the amount of benzoylecgonine, cocaine's main urinary
byproduct, found in water samples collected at Mezzano, a town on the
Po near Pavia, and from waste treatment plants in four medium-sized
Italian cities. The method is believed to be trustworthy because
benzoylecgonine is produced only by cocaine use.

Howard Stead, chief of the laboratory and scientific section at the
United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, said the study's findings
were not a surprise.

"I think it's solid science, and the general approach is good," he
said in a telephone interview from Vienna. "Where I would disagree is
that they're surprised that the results are as high as they are."

Data acquired by the agency suggest, he said, that "that part of Italy
has a higher-than-average number of drug users, compared to the rest
of the country."

A major drawback, he said, was that the researchers used an "expensive
method that couldn't be applied around the world" and that, if it were
to be used in the future, "some tweaking would be required to take
variables into account."

The authors of the study are promoting their method as an
evidence-based tool to gauge the extent of a phenomenon that is
difficult to measure. Current methods typically rely on medical
records, criminal statistics and consumers, who do not always tell the
truth, for their data.

Doctor Isidore Obot, a scientist at the World Health Organization,
said that the picture emerging was that cocaine was no longer used
primarily by the wealthy in urban areas.

"Cocaine use is being democratized," he said. "It's becoming more
widespread than you would expect. It's worth taking another look at
how we measure consumption."

Italian experts like Pietro D'Egidio, a drug abuse expert and a board
member of FeDerSerD, an organization grouping substance abuse
operators, said that monitoring drug use is always hard because no
method actually measures the frequency of consumption. However new
methods were useful as points of cross-reference. The wealth of the
Negri report, he said, "was to have opened a new point of observation".