We are in the middle of celebrating Red Ribbon Week, the oldest and largest drug prevention campaign in the country. Sponsored by the National Family Partnership, Red Ribbon Week “serves as a vehicle for communities and individuals to take a stand for the hopes and dreams of our children through a commitment to drug prevention and education and a personal commitment to live drug free lives with the ultimate goal being the creation of drug free America.”
Since 1980, Red Ribbon Week has been effectively used to target the substance abuse prevention message to school kids and families.
Yet, the 2011 National Survey on Drug Use and Health shows a disturbing trend in this country in the “continuing rise in the rate of current illicit drug use among young adults aged 18 to 25 — from 19.6-percent in 2008 to 21.2-percent in 2009 and 21.5-percent in 2010.” This increase appears to be driven in large part by a rise in marijuana use among this age group. Further, a recent survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that 20 percent of teens have taken a prescription drug without a doctor’s prescription.
So, on the one hand, we have what appears to be a successful and comprehensive substance abuse prevention message carried out in thousands of schools and communities across the country, and on the other hand, we are experiencing a serious growth in demand and use of illegal drugs by those very youth who are the target of this prevention campaign.
Perhaps it’s time to start thinking about alcohol and other drug abuse in a different way. Prevention and early intervention strategies are the hallmark of a public health approach to a chronic condition such as addiction. Public health officials say the goal of this approach is to reduce harmful use of substances, minimize negative health effects to the individual, and limit secondary drug-related harms to society. This approach also acknowledges that relative to substance abuse, there exists a spectrum of use, ranging from beneficial use to chronic dependence.
The public health approach to substance use and addiction is a way of thinking that is taking hold in a time when state budgets are being strained by the high cost of incarcerating people as a result of their alcohol and other drug abuse, and the lack of resources to provide those in need of treatment and therapeutic intervention services.
A public health approach stresses screening and assessments conducted in primary healthcare offices, emergency rooms and other community settings so that individuals are educated as to the consequences of their alcohol and other drug use. These screenings target a large population of risky to harmful users before they become dependent and provides opportunities for early intervention with at-risk substance users before more severe consequences occur.
There is much more work and thought ahead as we move toward a public health approach to addiction, including strategies for the reduction of harm and access to a comprehensive range of treatment and recovery services.
If we believe, as current thinking and evidence shows, that addiction is a preventable, treatable chronic health condition that can be managed over time, we can begin by honoring a strong substance abuse prevention message that is foundational to the development of strong families and communities.
Happy Red Ribbon Week!