Fall 1987 // Volume 25 // Number 3 // Research in Brief // 3RIB2

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Preventing Adolescent Drug Abuse


Patricia Tanner Nelson
Family and Child Development Specialist
University of Delaware-Newark

Alcohol is the most widely used drug among American youth. In surveys of high school seniors, 66% report having used alcohol in the past month. It's believed to be the major cause of fatal and nonfatal traffic accidents involving teenage drivers and is linked to thousands of drownings, suicides, and injuries.1

This update focuses on the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism's (NIAAA) Literature Review on Alcohol and Youth, a report that challenges some long-standing beliefs about the prevention of drug and alcohol abuse. Here are highlights of the report:

  • Youngsters who begin drinking before the age of 15 are the strongest candidates for later alcohol abuse. Longitudinal studies indicate that children are beginning to drink at increasingly earlier ages. Contrary to earlier conclusions, researchers now believe that drinking with family members at home can lead to later alcohol problems. A Canadian study suggests that the earlier children use alcohol in the home, the earlier they will drink outside the home.2

  • Researchers conclude that early prevention - "Be Smart, Don't Start" - before youngsters face peer and media pressures will be the most effective approach. Targeted audiences are 8-12 year olds and their parents.

  • Parents are the strongest prevention influence for 8-12 year olds. These factors seem to be important:
    1. parental disapproval of alcohol use by youth,
    2. strong family relationships,
    3. adult role modeling of chemically free problem solving and coping,
    4. realistic expectations, and
    5. encouragement of strong self-concepts and social skills.

  • Adolescents who spend most of their free time with peers are more likely to use drugs than those who spend most of their free time alone or with their family. Because the easiest group to belong to is one that uses alcohol and other drugs, youngsters who lack social skills may be at special risk for developing drug problems. Adolescents with strong bonds to family and school are less likely to be influenced by drug-using peers.

  • Community expectations about alcohol and drug use, social norms, and local policies and practices affect adolescent drug use. Three factors have made alcohol abuse more likely for teens in recent years: (1) easier access to bars and liquor stores, (2) relaxation of underage restrictions, and (3) relatively low cost of many alcoholic beverages.

  • While former drug prevention efforts have focused on providing information about drugs and helping adolescents strengthen self-concepts and social skills, the current NIAAA report indicates that only broad, comprehensive approaches are likely to achieve the goal of a drug-free environment for youth.

These strategies require an integrated approach and consistent messages transmitted through the mass media, through group training programs, and through one-on-one counseling.... Preventing use of alcohol must involve the entire community - parents, older youth, educators, health and social service professionals, youth and recreation groups, civic and service groups, religious organizations, government agencies and business. Applying the aforementioned strategies through multiple channels repeatedly over time may indeed engender a new generation of drug- and alcohol-free youth.3

Will adolescent drug abuse prevention be a "critical issue" Extension chooses to address? It seems clear that our powerful resources - 4-H youth and their parents, family well-being programming, and our expertise in community resource development - could bring a promising perspective to a problem that's having a devastating impact on our society.


1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, Literature Review on Alcohol and Youth (Washington, D.C.: Department of Health and Human Services, Public Health Services, Office of Substance Abuse Prevention, Alcohol, Drug Abuse, and Mental Health Administration, November 1986).

2. C. Whitehead, Young Drinkers: A Review of Recent Canadian Studies (Canada: Health Promotion Studies Series No. L., Health Promotion Directorate, Health and Welfare, 1983).

3. Ibid., p. 17.