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Question : I’ve heard about drug education programs for kids. But what are “harm reduction” programs? And what impact do they have on adolescent alcohol and drug use?
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The Trusted Source
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Howard LeWine, M.D.

Michael Craig Miller, M.D Michael Craig Miller, M.D., is Senior Editor of Mental Health Publishing at Harvard Health Publications. He is an assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Miller is in clinical practice at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, where he has been on staff for more than 25 years.

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September 27, 2012
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A:

“Just Say No” was a simplistic slogan during the 1980s. Well-known drug education programs have capitalized on that idea. They teach children and adolescents to abstain from alcohol and drugs.

Adolescents don’t buy it. By eighth grade, more than half of children have used alcohol. By the time they graduate high school, more than 80% have. Young adults, 18 to 29, drink 45% of the alcohol in the U.S. Almost two-thirds of the heaviest drinkers (more than 6 drinks per day) are under 30.

Advocates of harm reduction believe it is not practical to expect teens to abstain. Instead, they campaign to limit the damaging effects of substance use. They teach teens to avoid high-risk behavior and violence that can be triggered by drinking and drugs.

Harm reduction programs:

  • Explain the negative effects of substances
  • Promote self-esteem and social skills
  • Give tips to resist peer pressure
  • Celebrate the advantages, even pleasures, of making healthier choices

None of these programs accomplish all we might wish for. They are not designed to address mental disorders or family conflict. They can’t change what is happening at home or in school that might contribute to substance use.

And healthy living is also a tough sell. Yet harm reduction programs may pay off. Several studies have shown that the shift of emphasis lowers the rate of alcohol-related harm. Less harm probably equals better outcomes for our teens.

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