Seven Tips for Making Red Ribbon Week More Effective

What is Red Ribbon Week?

Each year community organizations across the nation celebrate Red Ribbon Week to promote awareness of substance abuse prevention among youth.  The event honors the memory of a drug enforcement officer, Enrique Camarena, who was murdered in 1985.  This year Red Ribbon Week is October 23rd to October 31st, 2015. 

According to SAMHSA, Red Ribbon Week encourages individuals, families, and communities to take a stand against the use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. The observance focuses on educating the public on the destructive effects of alcohol and drugs, and the health-positive alternatives that are available to youth and adults.

As part of Red Ribbon Week observances across the Nation, participants wear or display a red ribbon to symbolize zero tolerance for illegal drug use by youth and a commitment to substance abuse prevention. Schools and community groups typically organize a variety of activities including contests, workshops, rallies, theatrical and musical performances, and other family-centered and educational events.

Below are a few tips for increasing the effectiveness of your Red Ribbon Week efforts. 

Tips for a More Effective Red Ribbon Week 

1. Address more than drug use risks. 

In addition to increasing awareness of the risks associated with youth alcohol and drug use, inform the community and key stakeholders of the critical importance of sound prevention programs and policies.  Use Red Ribbon Week as an opportunity to tout your past successes at preventing substance use and promoting the health of youth in your community.  In addition, communicate your strategic plans for your future prevention and health promotion efforts, and the funds or support you’ll need to make it happen.   

2. Highlight your use of evidence-based alcohol, tobacco and drug use prevention programs and strategies. 

One of the benefits of using evidence-based programs is their published effectiveness.  Use data from reports, publications and evidence-based databases like the National Registry of Evidence-based Programs and Practices (NREPP) (http://www.nrepp.samhsa.gov/) to inform your community of the positive outcomes you expect to achieve by implementing a previously vetted and evaluated program.  If you aren’t currently implementing an evidence-based program, now is an excellent time to announce your plans to select a program proven to cost-effectively protect and improve the health of youth in your community.   

3. Target wellness-promoting behaviors. 

Along with addressing risks associated with alcohol, tobacco and other drug use, and informing the public about effective strategies to help youth avoid substance use and related problems, discuss how to promote healthy habits among youth.  Increasing healthy behaviors not only promotes overall well-being, but also helps prevent and reduce substance use and other risk habits among youth.  By addressing substance use prevention and wellness behavior promotion together you increase the likelihood of improving the effectiveness of your prevention efforts while also enhancing the whole health of your youth population.  

4. Tailor your prevention messages and be positive. 

Avoid focusing exclusively on presenting the negative effects of alcohol and drug use, particularly among older youth populations, as this can result in them discounting your overall prevention message.  In addition, be careful not to present drug use as normal or common when communicating with youth as this may increase normative beliefs that can increase youth drug use.  Instead, tailor your message to your community groups, by emphasizing different content for youth, parents, teachers, community leaders, and the general public.  It’s also a great idea to emphasize the more positive aspects of prevention to increase message reception and appeal, including portraying positive youth behaviors, images and successes resulting from prevention programs and youth avoiding risk behaviors.    

5. Have youth make a public commitment to improve. 

Go beyond asking young people to make a simple commitment to just avoid drug use.  Instead, ask them to set and monitor concrete goals to both avoid specific risk habits like all alcohol and marijuana use in the next week, and at the same time improve one or more wellness promoting habits like participating in sports, getting additional regular physical activity, eating more nutritious foods or regular healthy breakfasts, getting additional sleep on school nights, or practicing specific relaxation or stress control activities.  Follow up with youth the following week to see how they did with their Red Ribbon Week goal plans and give them an opportunity to revise and reset goals for the next week or month. 

6. Ask parents to provide support at home. 

Provide parents with brief, positive statements they can easily make to their youth at home which reinforce your Red Ribbon Week prevention messages at school or in the community.  As discussed earlier, these health communications should address more than drug use risks, and should include how healthy habits result in positive outcomes and self-images, while risk behaviors interfere with positive behavior and self-image achievement.  Parents can also be asked to co-sign multiple health behavior goal plans youth have set at school or in the community.   

7. Expand Red Ribbon Week beyond one week. 

Do not limit your prevention activities to a single week once a year.  To have a significant and lasting influence on developing healthy, fit and substance use free youth lifestyles, plan to implement prevention programs at various times throughout the year.  Save money and increase the effectiveness of your prevention efforts by choosing an evidence-based program that is easy to implement, quick, targets both health risk and health promoting behaviors, and is sustainable over time.   


Red Ribbon Week is an excellent opportunity to increase community attention about the harm associated with youth alcohol and drug use, as well as to draw attention to your prevention activities, successes, and future plans.  To increase the effectiveness of this year’s Red Ribbon Week, don’t limit yourself to communicating negative prevention messages.  Instead, highlight your use of cost-effective evidence-based programs, discuss the importance of increasing wellness promoting behaviors in prevention, tailor your prevention message to key groups, have youth set goals to improve multiple health behaviors, ask parents to reinforce positive health communications at home, and don’t limit your prevention and health efforts to a single week a year.    

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