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Updated on August 25, 2022
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Drug Prevention Programs

What are Prevention Programs?

Prevention programs are activities aimed at deterring specific drug-related problems.

They protect/preserve the participants' current state of wellbeing and encourage desirable behaviors or outcomes.

The approaches used in these programs are heavily based on behavioral science and psychology, and target specific settings. They may occur in schools, families, or communities. Their content is adapted for use in each of those settings for a particular target audience. 

School-based programs were the first to be fully designed and evaluated, and they are the preferred solution for children and adolescents. Family-based programs are implemented in situations that require engaging both children and their parents or guardians.

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Who Are These Programs For?

Drug prevention programs target children, teens, and college-aged young adults (ages 10 to 19) as they go through major life transitions.

The first of these transitions occurs when children leave the security of their families to start school and when they graduate. They encounter new social and academic situations during each stage, like adapting to a wider peer group.5 These scenarios are likely to expose them to illicit drug use for the first time.

Children face additional emotional, social, and educational challenges when they enter high school.

Besides facing increased peer pressure, they are often exposed to greater availability of prescription drugs and social activities that involve drug use. These interactions increase the likelihood of using tobacco, alcohol, and other substances.

Note: Learning institutions are often considered the ideal environment for campaigns to limit or eliminate the risk of early drug use and future addiction.

There are two main reasons for this:

  • They account for most of the target participants’ time 
  • They provide ideal settings in which to impart the knowledge and tools to reduce drug use

Why Is Adolescence a Critical Time for Drug Prevention?

Adolescents are more likely to engage in risky behavior than any other age group.1

It is a normal part of their development that enables them to find their identities and grow into independent young adults. Unfortunately, this behavior also increases their tendency to experiment with drugs.

Adolescents are also more susceptible to the long-term, negative effects of drug use. Using drugs at this age has more potential to distort brain function in areas that govern memory, motivation, learning, behavior control, emotional development, and judgment, potentially leading to a serious mental illness.

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How Prevention Programs Work

Prevention programs seek to strengthen protective factors 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 that he or she will use 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 prevention programs address these issues through impactful content and delivery systems:


Content comprises information, methods, skills development, and services. Information can include details on drugs and their effects, along with drug policies and laws. 

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 prevention programs.

This creates avenues for family discussion on the misuse of both legal and illegal drugs.

Note: On its own, drug information is not 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. Services include school counseling and assistance, family therapy, and healthcare. 

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


Delivery comprises program selection and implementation.

The selection process involves communities attempting to match effective research-driven programs to their needs. This is often achieved through a structured review of existing programs to determine gaps. This information can then be included in the community plan that guides new program selection.

Are Drug Prevention Programs Effective?

Despite the widely-recognized failure of early substance use interventions like DARE, these programs are effective – provided they are driven by evidence-based practices.4 

The most effective drug prevention programs focus on the following:

  • Addressing all substance use forms (alcohol use 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

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What Are Some Examples of Research-Based Prevention Programs?

Here are some examples of research-based prevention programs:

Classroom-Centered and Family-School Partnership Preventions

These evidence-based programs are delivered to students at the first-grade level to deter later onset of aggressive behavior, violence, and substance use disorders. They are also used 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 is designed for both family and school settings.

The program focuses on reinforcing 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 educating students on general personal and social skills, along with drug resistance methodologies. 

The program has since been expanded to cover 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 is designed to equip parents with the knowledge and skills to reduce risk factors and strengthen family bonds. 

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

Lions-Quest Skills for Adolescence (SFA)

SFA is a universally available 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 designed for parents, schools, the media, community organizations, and health policymakers. 

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

Strengthening Families 

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

It is 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 focuses on reducing the risk for childhood delinquency and drug use problems like underage drinking by reinforcing protective factors. The program involves teachers, parents, and elementary school children. 

How Much Do Drug Prevention Programs Cost?

On average, an effective school-based program will cost about $220 per student, including teacher training and materials.3

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Updated on August 25, 2022
5 sources cited
Updated on August 25, 2022
  1. Balocchini, E., Chiamenti, G., & Lamborghini, A. 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. and Hendrie, D. Substance Abuse Prevention Dollars and Cents: A Cost-Benefit Analysis, DHHS Pub. No. (SMA) 07-4298. Rockville, MD: Center for Substance AbusePrevention, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 2008.
  4. West, Steven L, and Keri K O'Neal. “Project D.A.R.E. outcome effectiveness revisited.” American journal of public health vol. 94,6 : 1027-9. doi:10.2105/ajph.94.6.1027
  5. What are the highest risk periods for drug abuse among youth?” National Institute on Drug Abuse. 2020, May 25

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