School Climate & Safety

For Drug Prevention, Scare Tactics Are Out. Here’s What’s In

By Elizabeth Heubeck — January 27, 2023 3 min read
First lady Nancy Reagan speaks at the first national conference of the National Federation of Parents for Drug-Free Youth in Washington on Oct. 11, 1982. “Many people think drug prevention is ‘just say no,’ like Nancy Reagan did in the '80s, and we know that did not work,” said Becky Vance, CEO of the Texas-based agency Drug Prevention Resources, which has advocated for evidenced-based anti-drug and alcohol abuse education for more than 85 years.
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Anyone who was a teenager in the 1980s may well remember the phrase “Just Say No,” the centerpiece of a government-led anti-drug initiative launched by the late former first lady Nancy Reagan. The catchy phrase stuck in teens’ minds; its message, not so much.

The same can be said of images of twisted cars and bodies—victims of drunk teen drivers—that flashed from film projectors in high school auditoriums during that same era as a warning of the possible consequences of drug and alcohol use.

Experience and research now tell us that drug- and alcohol-prevention programs centered on abstinence messages and scare tactics don’t work. So, what does?

Given that hundreds of commercially available school-based drug-prevention education programs exist today, it’s not easy to choose. While most of these programs have the same goal—to prevent or delay the onset of substance use among children and adolescents—they vary widely in scope and delivery method, from programs that run from kindergarten through high school to once-a-year “addiction” nights at high schools, where the content varies from time-worn videos of car crashes involving drunk teens to recovering addicts sharing their stories. Throw in vast differences in the amount of human capital and instructional time that schools dedicate to these initiatives, and the landscape gets even more convoluted.

To cut through the clutter and find what works, experts suggest that schools use the following as a guide:

Look for evidence-based programs

Researchers urge schools to adopt prevention programs labeled “evidence-based,” meaning they’ve been designed around current scientific evidence, tested thoroughly, and proven to produce positive results, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse. As Amy Goldstein, chief of the prevention research branch at the institute, pointed out: “If you’re going to do something, and you have limited dollars, use the programs we know work.”

Start early

Years ago, prevention programs targeted mainly adolescents. But researchers have found that effective programs begin when children are much younger, before they face decisions around alcohol and drug use. The Centers of Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines recommend that prevention programs run from kindergarten through 12th grade.

Prevention educators agree.

“You’ve got to talk early and often,” said Karen Pershing, executive director of Knoxville’s Metro Drug Coalition, which works directly with schools and other community entities on prevention initiatives. “They [early-childhood lessons] are stepping stones. You’re not necessarily talking about drugs to young children,” she said. “You’re teaching them how to have respect for your mind and your body.”

Lawmakers are catching on. Ohio Governor Mike DeWine, for one, began pushing for schools to start evidence-based drug education starting in kindergarten as attorney general in 2017.

Tap into students’ critical thinking skills

Pershing encourages educators to teach students, especially older ones, to learn how to assess information on drugs and alcohol for credibility, just as they would for any academic research topic. “They’re smart,” she said. “Teach them how to sift through propaganda versus fact-based information.”

Pershing points out that, currently, a lot of propaganda exists around the purported health benefits of marijuana. “There’s a huge industry that is driving messaging,” Pershing said, comparing it to the profit-driven alcohol and tobacco industries. “Get teenagers to understand that the marketing and sales techniques in the cannabis industry try to create new users, just as it is with other types of products.”

Focus on decisionmaking

Teenagers are frequently characterized as being impulsive, and recent research now shows it’s because their frontal lobe, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, is not yet fully mature. That’s why drug- and alcohol-prevention efforts should focus on explaining the effects that poor decision-making can have not just on themselves, but also on others, said Pershing. “We try to get them to understand they’re a part of a family,” she added, “and how [poor decisions] could affect your parents, classmates, teammates, etc.”

Rely on reputable sources

The following sources provide evidence-based information on substance abuse and prevention:

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