CADCA Publisher May 23, 2016

Drug Abuse Prevention Should be about Health

No Use of Alcohol, Nicotine, Marijuana and other Drugs for Reasons of Health

Alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and other illegal drugs are harmful to young brains and all are associated with negative outcomes such as pulmonary and cardiac disease, mental illness, deviant behavior, lower grades and diminished aspirations. Any illegal drug use by young people is not healthy. 

To fulfill its mission to protect our nation’s young people, drug abuse prevention messaging must be clear, simple and practical: No use of alcohol, nicotine, marijuana and other drugs for reasons of health. This message acknowledges that the use of any drug by youth is associated with the likelihood of using other drugs. It reflects the powerful research on the negative effects of these substances, not only on the body’s vital organs but also on the uniquely vulnerable adolescent brain. It underscores that all of these drugs are illegal for youth because long ago our nation decided that their use is unhealthy and unwise for young people. 

This public health message of no-use is realistic. It is supported by a new research analysis of four decades of reported drug use by American youth that shows a dramatic growth in the percentage of youth who do not use any drug at all. This group is called the abstainers. Their behavior is reversing earlier trends in illegal drug use.  

The primary goal of prevention for reasons of health encourages and supports the growing trend for young people to reject the use of any drug. Too often prevention messages are focused on one specific drug or on a situation, such as “no drinking if driving” and “no binge drinking.” Because some drugs are legal for use by adults, the message to kids can be blurred, such as being “drug-free” without spelling out what that means. Prevention messaging sometimes conveys that drug use by young people is inevitable and encourages less use, thus normalizing youth drug use, or focuses on some particular consequences of drug use rather than on not using or stopping drug use.

Many adults are reluctant to be direct about the message of no-use of any drug. Telling young people not to use any alcohol, nicotine, marijuana or other drug for reasons of health is both clear and based on scientific research. Parents, in particular, need to know that what they say to their children about drug use is important and that no use is reasonable.  

The prevalent health and safety message about the use of seat belts in a vehicle is absolutely clear: Always wear your seat belt. That same clarity is needed about illegal drug use. For young people who do use drugs, this prevention message also is important: Stop using because it is bad for your health. This message, based on concern for the health of youth, can be communicated firmly yet respectfully. It is important for those of us working in the field of prevention not to be fuzzy in our messaging. When we are unclear about youth drug use we dishonor our responsibilities to youth. 

Robert L. DuPont, MD, is the President, Institute for Behavior and Health, Inc. He was also the first Director fo the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

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