Updated on February 6, 2024
7 min read

Substance Abuse Prevention: How Effective Are Drug Prevention Programs for Adolescents?

What are Substance Abuse Prevention Programs?

Prevention programs aim to deter specific problems related to substance abuse. These programs implement behavioral science and psychology in their activities under specific settings.

Benefits of substance abuse prevention programs include:

  • Protecting and preserving a person’s well-being
  • Improving mental health
  • Encouraging desirable behaviors or outcomes

Substance abuse prevention programs can occur in:

  • Schools
  • Families
  • Communities

The activities in these programs are adapted to fit the setting and target audience. School-based programs are ideal for children and adolescents, while family-based programs are better in situations that require engaging children and their parents or guardians.

An effective school-based program will cost about $220 per student. The cost includes teacher training and materials.3

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Who Are Substance Abuse Prevention Programs For?

Substance use prevention programs aim to help people ages 10 to 19. These include:

  • Children
  • Teens
  • College students

Schools and other learning institutions are often the ideal environments for prevention programs. These places account for most of the target participants’ time and provide perfect settings to impart knowledge and tools to reduce substance abuse.


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Why is Adolescence a Critical Time for Drug Prevention?

Adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behavior than other age groups.1 It’s an expected part of their development that enables them to find their identities and grow into independent young adults.

As they encounter new social and academic situations, they often face more significant peer pressure and the availability of prescription drugs. These interactions increase the likelihood of using tobacco, alcohol, and other substances.

Aside from the likelihood of engaging in risky behavior, adolescents are also more susceptible to drug use's long-term adverse effects. Using drugs at this age can affect:

  • Memory
  • Motivation
  • Learning
  • Behavior control
  • Emotional development
  • Judgment

Alcohol-related problems can lead to severe mental illness, eliminating positive youth development. Other reasons why underage drinking prevention is imperative include the following:

  • Peer pressure: Peer relationships are increasingly influential during adolescence. Children may seek validation and acceptance by engaging in risky behaviors like partaking in illicit drugs.
  • Establishing behavioral patterns: Adolescence is a formative period when individuals develop social skills and habits that can persist into adulthood.
  • Neurological development: During early adolescence, the brain is vulnerable in decision-making, impulse control, and risk assessment. Substance abuse prevention can equip adolescents with the knowledge to resist negative peer pressure and make healthy decisions. 

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Are Drug Prevention Programs Effective?

Despite the widely-recognized failure of early substance use interventions like DARE, these programs are effective when evidence-based practices drive them.4 

The most effective evidence-based prevention programs focus on the following:

  • Addressing all substance use forms (alcohol use, binge drinking, and underage substance use)
  • Enhancing family communication and bonding 
  • Addressing specific local problems and accounting for localized risk factors (based on demographics or location)
  • Implementing delivery methods that encourage open communication, interactivity, and the exploration of unique substances
  • Repeating prevention techniques over a long period to reinforce prevention goals 
  • Maintaining clear, consistent messaging across multiple community channels
  • Providing academic support
  • Imparting social competence and drug resistance skills

How to Choose the Best Prevention Program

When choosing a prevention program for adolescents, it’s imperative to consider their specific needs, circumstances, and treatment goals. Different programs offer various approaches and levels of care.

Outpatient Programs

Outpatient programs provide treatment while allowing adolescents to live at home and attend school. They typically involve regular counseling sessions, group therapy, educational workshops, and family involvement.


  • Flexibility in scheduling and room to maintain daily routines
  • High focus on family functioning, creating lasting family connections
  • More affordable than inpatient drug abuse programs


  • Less direct supervision potentially leads to relapse
  • Increased distractions and more opportunities for illicit alcohol use

Inpatient/Residential Programs

Residential or inpatient programs involve the adolescent residing in a treatment facility for a specified period, usually from several weeks to several months. They provide a structured and immersive treatment environment.


  • Intensive therapy and 24/7 supervision with prevention specialists
  • Peer support and community-based intervention
  • Distraction-free environment


  • Disruption of routine, requiring adjustments
  • Limited family involvement, potential sense of familial alienation
  • Higher cost 

Intensive Outpatient Programs (IOP)

Intensive outpatient programs offer a higher level of care than standard outpatient programs. While these programs aim to achieve the same output, they typically involve more hours of treatment multiple times per week.


  • Structured treatment schedule
  • Gradual transition into daily life


  • Require significant time commitments
  • Lower levels of supervision compared to inpatient programs
  • Varied accessibility, depending on location and resources

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How Substance Abuse Prevention Programs Work

Prevention programs seek to enforce protective factors against substance abuse, improve mental health, and reduce risk factors for drug use.

Protective factors are attributes or conditions that limit the risk of drug use.2 They include:

  • Parental monitoring
  • Self-control
  • Academic competence
  • Anti-drug use policies
  • Strong neighborhood attachment

Risk factors are those that increase the likelihood that drug use will occur. They don't determine drug use and misuse on their own. Instead, they have a cumulative effect (i.e., the more risk factors an adolescent is exposed to, the higher the risk of using drugs).2

Risk factors include:

  • Feelings of low self-worth
  • Negative peer associations
  • Unrealistic beliefs about drug consumption
  • School exclusion
  • Inconsistent or abusive parenting

Drug programs address these issues through impactful content and delivery systems.


Content and implementation materials comprise information, methods, skills development, and services. Information can include:

  • Drug details
  • Effects of drug and alcohol use
  • Policies and laws surrounding illicit drug use

For example, if a drug prevention program is family-based, parents can receive drug education and information that builds on what the children learn in their school programs. It creates avenues for family discussion on the misuse of both legal and illegal drugs.

Note: On its own, drug information isn’t an effective deterrent. Combining this information with methods, skills, and services produces more significant results.

Methods aim to drive change and may include actions like: 

  • Establishing and enforcing drug use rules in schools, at home, and within the community
  • School counseling and assistance 
  • Family therapy
  • Healthcare 

Parental supervision and monitoring may be supported through training on setting rules, methods for monitoring children, positive reinforcement, and moderate but consistent discipline that reinforces family rules.


Delivery comprises program selection and implementation. Communities match effective research-driven programs to their needs through a structured review of existing programs.

They also determine where gaps exist in these programs. Once they compile the information, they include it in the community plan for a new program selection.

Research-Based Prevention Programs

Here are some examples of research-based programs and national institutes for evidence-based prevention:

Classroom-Centered and Family-School Partnership Preventions

These evidence-based programs target students at the first-grade level to deter the later onset of aggressive behavior, violence, and substance use disorders. They also aim to improve academic performance.

The strategies implemented include:

  • Organizational strategies and classroom management
  • Parent-teacher communication
  • Reading and mathematics learning activities
  • Child behavior management at home

Caring School Community Programs

The Caring School community initiative works to address risk and protective factors among elementary school children. It’s designed for both family and school settings.

The program reinforces students' sense of community or attachment to school.

Life Skills Training Program

LST is designed for middle school students. It aims to address various protective and risk factors by teaching children general personal and social skills and drug resistance methodologies. 

The program now covers elementary and high school students. The elementary school version introduces students to life skills training, while the high school program aims to reinforce the gains attained in middle school.

Guiding Good Choices

Formerly known as Preparing for the Drug-Free Years, this evidence-based prevention program equips parents with the knowledge and skills to reduce risk factors and strengthen family bonds. 

Parents learn family interaction and involvement skills, setting clear expectations, behavioral evaluation, maintaining discipline, and other bonding approaches.

Lions-Quest Skills for Adolescence (SFA)

SFA is a universal commercial life skills education program for middle school students.

It focuses on imparting skills that improve personal responsibility and mental health, decision-making, communication, asserting rights, and resisting social influences. The program also educates learners on drug use and its consequences.

Project STAR

Project Star is a community-based drug use prevention initiative for parents, schools, the media, community-based organizations, and health policymakers. 

The school aspect of this program targets social influence and is incorporated into classroom sessions by trained teachers over two years. The parenting aspect teaches family communication skills and introduces them to community action.

Strengthening Families 

The Strengthening Families Program (SFP) is a drug use intervention that provides evidence-based family skills training for the general population and high-risk families.

It’s recognized both nationally and internationally.

Skills, Opportunity, and Recognition

This program is a universal school-based intervention for children in grades 1 to 6.

It reduces the risk of childhood delinquency and drug use problems like underage drinking by reinforcing protective factors. The program involves teachers, parents, and elementary school children.

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Updated on February 6, 2024
5 sources cited
Updated on February 6, 2024
  1. Balocchini et al.Adolescents: which risks for their life and health?” Journal of Preventive Medicine and Hygiene, 2013
  2. High-Risk Substance Use Among Youth.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
  3. Miller, T., Hendrie, D. “Substance Abuse Prevention Dollars and Cents: A Cost-Benefit Analysis,” U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008.
  4. West, SL. O'Neal, KK. “Project D.A.R.E. outcome effectiveness revisited.” American Journal of public health,2004.
  5. What are the highest risk periods for drug abuse among youth?” National Institute on Drug Abuse, 2020.

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