The Importance of Prevention


“Preventing other problem behaviours may have positive effects with regard to the prevention of substance abuse”

As UNGASS 2016, the United Nations General Assembly Special Session on the world drug problem, is rapidly approaching, Dianova would like to shed some light on issues that we deem to be of particular importance, not only because they constitute the bedrock of our daily work, but also because they are critical in ensuring  effective drug policies.

With this article, we want to stress the relevance of prevention in drug use. We have borrowed a text from the report “Future of Drug Policy: Real Solutions Grounded in Global Evidence”. This report was initially published in November 2015 by Drug Policy Futures, a global platform advocating evidence-based strategies for promoting public health, safety and the well-being of society, including people addicted to drugs and their families.

With this report, Drug Policy Futures chose to combine theoretical arguments on drug policy with practical, hands-on perspectives from the grassroots level as to how drug control should be implemented in practice.

Download the complete report (pdf document, English)

The Importance of Prevention: An Introduction

By Charli Eriksson, Senior Professor, School of Health Sciences, Faculty of Medicine and Health, Örebro University, Sweden

It is always better to prevent an unwanted health problem than to treat the problem itself. Much has been said on the issue. Indeed, a search in a recently updated database on prevention gave nearly 1 million hits. An important starting point for discussion of the importance of drug prevention is what the words ‘importance’ and ‘prevention’ mean in the context of future drug policy.

A vital part of a public-health-oriented drug policy is preventing drug-related problems from occurring. This is a key aspect of promoting health in the twenty-first century and it involves a multidisciplinary endeavour ranging from surveillance through to the provision of health advice and information. Moreover, it includes actions taken by individuals through both national and international agencies. It also takes place in many different settings, such as homes, workplaces, schools, youth centres, health facilities, restaurants, and other community locations.

In the context of drug prevention, the importance of prevention is related both to the prevalence of substance use and abuse in the population and to the impact it has on that population’s health and well-being. The undeniable magnitude of the problem and its tremendous social and economic costs means that responding has become a priority for policy-makers at all levels of government.

The health-economic realities described in other chapters in this book make it clear that governments must be involved in the prevention of substance abuse. However, drug prevention needs effective weapons in order to hit its intended targets. There is no single cause of drug use and abuse. Nor can a single targeted bullet eradicate substance abuse. Good intentions are not enough. Turning the potentials of drug prevention into a reality is thus a challenge.

A common view on drug prevention, especially among lay people, is that it consists of warning young people about the dangerous effects of drug use. However, according to current research, the provision of information on the effects of drugs alone, mostly via media campaigns, has no impact on drug-use behaviour. Science now allows us to tell a more complicated story (…)

Prevention is about the healthy and safe development of children and adolescents. Prevention strategies, that scientific evidence has shown to work with families, school and communities, can ensure that children and young people, including the most marginalized and the poorest, grow and stay healthy and safe into adulthood.

Drug prevention is an integral part of a larger effort to ensure that the young are less vulnerable and more resilient. By targeting early liability factors rather than substance-use problems later in adolescence, interventions may reduce the adverse impact which substance use has on the developing brain, as well as preventing associated harms.

Investing in prevention can also save money. According to a US study, every dollar invested in prevention can give a return of at least ten dollars through reductions in future social, health- and crime-related costs.

An estimate of the global burden of disease found that 12.6 percent of all deaths and 9 percent of the disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) lost were owing to substance abuse. The figures were found to be higher in high-income countries, where 10.2 percent of the DALYs lost were attributed to tobacco, 6.7 percent to alcohol, and 2.1 percent to illicit drugs. However, the transitions of individuals into dependency, substance abuse and early death also represent losses for families, social networks, and working life.

In reality, the challenge of drug prevention lies in helping young people to adjust their behaviours, capacities, and well-being in multiple fields of influence, such as those represented by social norms, interaction with peers, living conditions, and their own personality traits. Moreover, substance abuse shares several vulnerabilities with a number of other risk behaviours. This means that preventing other problem behaviours may have positive effects with regard to the prevention of substance abuse. Furthermore, a drug policy can make a drug-free life easier to achieve, while also reducing exposures to the substances that may be abused. This view is reflected in modern prevention approaches, which also aim to reduce the risk related to substance abuse. It is in these approaches that opportunities for success in preventing drug use reside.