The Changing Tide of Prevention- A Four Part Series About the Evolution Drug Prevention Strategy- Part 2 Just Say No?

I wish we knew then what we know now. In the 1980’s, with the war on drugs in full tilt, this simple catch phase became the rally call for substance abuse prevention.  It seems pretty simple, right? Just say no to using drugs and you won’t become addicted to them. What the “Just say no” campaign failed to take into account are the many, many biological, environmental, social, and economic factors that lead to someone starting to use substances. During this time, experts believed that peer pressure was the single greatest influence leading to substance use and abuse. Therefore, if we can teach youth to resist the peer pressure to use substances, then they simply will not risk becoming addicted. This, in very simplified terms, is the basis of inoculation theory.

The campaign also perpetuated a well-seasoned stigma that individuals suffering from substance use disorder had somehow made a conscious and amoral choice to use and become addicted to drugs. This concept inherently labeled them as “bad” while those who did not abuse drugs were then “good” thus perpetuating the negative stigma of addiction. This approach to promoting drug awareness was labeled simplistic by critics who argued that the solution was reduced to a catch phrase.  In fact, two studies suggested that enrollees in DARE-like programs were actually more likely to use alcohol and cigarettes

Fortunately, today we understand the science of addition much more than with did in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s. We also have a much greater understanding of the risk and protective factors that lead to substance use disorder. I will discuss that further in part three of this series. Today, we have a better understanding that ANYONE can become addicted to drugs. In fact, we now understand that drugs are not the only substance or stimuli that we can become addicted to. We also have a better understanding of the broad reach of addiction. Still, our society tends to want to label and stigmatize those who are addicted.

As a society and as prevention professionals, we are failing ourselves and our communities if we over simplify addiction and stigmatize those who have become addicted to substances. To understand more about the science of addiction and who can become addicted, watch these short videos from the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Gordon Coombes