The problem of drug abuse is likely to explode in the next decade, particularly affecting children in the 10-17 age group, as the societal construct undergoes a massive shift, preliminary findings of an ongoing study released on Wednesday stated.

Mental health issues, performance pressure, growing emptiness and changing socio-economic conditions are having a toll on this very impressionable age group the most, making them vulnerable to addictive distractions, the study by independent think tank Think Change Forum has found.

The impact of the increasing drug abuse will be seen in both urban and rural India, the study said.

In view of the alarming growth in the consumption of substances in post-pandemic India, particularly among adolescents and youth, Think Change Forum has initiated a national study based on expert consultations to decode the problem of rising addiction and recommend solutions.

The think tank's 'Ideas for an Addiction-Free India' initiative entails drawing learnings from the views of national experts from the fields of policy, psychology, social sciences and medical fraternity among others.

The preliminary findings have identified three important trends accelerating the adoption of substance use among adolescents and the youth, and three crucial interventions are needed to immediately decelerate them, it said.

Glamourisation of intoxication and addictive substances was the first important trend speeding up substance abuse in India, the study said.

"Today, heroes and heroines in popular media glamourise intoxication. Children and adolescents are exposed to these role models indulging in such acts across different media, including movies and video series. The message conveyed is that these activities are not only acceptable but also highly desirable," Sushant Kalra, parenting coach and TEDx speaker, said.

It leaves those who do not indulge in drug use to feel "stigmatised", he added.

The second trend accelerating drug use is the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products.

Experts believe such products are part of a marketing hype created by international e-cigarette companies, which claim that electronic device-based heated tobacco and vaping products are less harmful than cigarettes and that they aid de-addiction.

Dr K K Handa, chairman of ENT and Head Neck Surgery at Medanta Hospitals said, "The international tobacco industry is attempting to position e-cigarettes as a substitute to smoking." "It is not scientifically right to claim that e-cigarettes is a step-down from smoking cigarettes for eliminating nicotine addiction. Rather, e-cigarettes become a step-up activity to smoking conventional cigarettes," Handa said.

E-cigarettes can be used to deliver other higher degree of addictive substances which can be in the form of sticks or other liquids, Dr Rajesh Gupta, additional director of Pulmonology and Critical Care at Fortis Healthcare Noida, said.

"Therefore, e-cigarettes can help smokers graduate to drugs more complex than nicotine," he added.

The third trend causing a rapid rise in substance abuse is the rising mental health issues on the back of growing performance pressures and growing emptiness making children more vulnerable.

Seconding this, Dr R K Suri, clinical psychologist, said mental health issues as well as societal pressures result in increasing usage of addictive substances among our youth.

"During the Covid-19 pandemic, children have experienced a growing sense of emptiness and isolation, which has resulted in an increase in adventurous behaviour and experimentation with substances that they should otherwise avoid," KK Handa elaborated.

The experts came down heavily on the "false propaganda" of the e-cigarette and vaping industry who they said were misleading the youth recommending an intervention in practice.

Dr Safala Shroff, an adolescent health educator, said, "Proponents of e-cigarettes and vaping use social media platforms frequented by adolescents and youth to advocate against their ban. To counter such propaganda our narratives have to be sound and scientific."

"We need to learn to talk in a manner that will connect with children and adolescents and tell them that vaping is not better than tobacco, but, in fact, is a device that presently leads to highest levels of addiction and lung injury," Dr Shroff added.

The second-most important intervention in fighting the rising drug abuse is a stronger enforcement of the existing laws.

Although India has implemented a ban on vaping and e-cigarette devices, the availability of these devices through the grey market, both physically and online, needs to be addressed to effectively tackle the issue, said Dr Vikas Mittal, associate director of Pulmonology at Max Healthcare.

Lakshmi Bhaskaran, a social impact consultant, said adequate enforcement and monitoring should be done in the channels where adolescents and the youth seek addictive substances.

"For example, search engines should not allow people below 18 to search for words like drugs. Additionally, there should be regulations in place to prevent the easy availability of over-the-counter addictive drugs in pharmacies," Bhaskaran said.

"Obtaining a temporary high from cough syrup, for example, can serve as a gateway to more severe forms of addiction," Bhaskaran added.

The third important intervention is education against such addictions with a focus on parents and educators.

"The best way to fight this menace is through education. There are millions of teachers in the country who should be educated about substance abuse. Parents also need to be educated on the issue because they have no idea the damage it is doing to their children," Kalra said.