What’s the Difference Between Drug Prevention & Drug Education?

What’s the Difference Between Drug Prevention & Drug Education?

I’ve noticed that even some substance abuse professionals seem to be confused about the differences between drug prevention, drug education, and drug information.

An article published in the Health Education Journal a couple of years ago illuminatingly described these differences using a selection of international literature on drug education best practices.

This article covers a wealth of information critical to those working in the drug prevention and education field, including:  

  • Drug education and drug prevention – what’s the difference?
  • Drug education and best practice standards.
  • Ineffective approaches and practices to avoid.
  • Effective approaches and practices to adopt.
  • A caution before beginning beginning program delivery.
  • Terminology and preparing for delivery.
  • Program delivery.

Differences Between Drug Education and Drug Prevention

According to the article’s author, one way to think of the differences between drug education and prevention are as follows:

“Drug education is best understood as a program that includes knowledge and activities with a particular learning aim,” where as “The aim of drug prevention on the contrary may be to bring about behavior change within a population.”

The key differences are that drug education should result in new knowledge or understanding for the audience, whereas drug prevention should result in behavioral change or change of known risk and protective factors influencing drug using behavior.

These two processes are complementary and may be provided concurrently.  

Drug information, on the other hand, is just that, information about drugs provided in various print or electronic formats, which is not expected to influence behavior and may not improve understanding about drugs.

Most prevention and education professionals and parents would likely agree that the primary goal, when it comes to youth health and development, is to prevent their using alcohol and drugs, and if using already, reduce their use and likelihood of addiction, and promote healthier lifestyles and activities. This is drug prevention.

The key implication of the differences between the two terms is for practitioners to select appropriate goals and measures based on whether they are engaging in drug education or drug prevention, or perhaps a combination of both.

Best Practices for What Works and What Doesn’t Work

Let’s start with what doesn’t work for drug prevention and education.

The paper highlighted ineffective strategies as those including: 1) scare tactics, 2) testimonials or guest talks, 3) one-off talks or school assemblies, 4) information-only programs, 5) lecture-based didactic approaches, and 6) refusal skills training.

After 40 years in the prevention field, I continue to see many of these strategies still being used today.

Best practices for effective, contemporary practitioners should include carefully reviewing their current strategies and ensuring they don’t include any of these known ineffective approaches. 

So, what strategies are effective?  These include: 1) multi-component programs; 2) interactive programs; 3) structured programs; 4) age, developmental level, and culturally appropriate strategies; 5) risk-focused approaches; and 6) programs that dispel misconceptions.

Practitioners providing prevention and education services should emphasize these later known effective strategies in their work.

In fact, evidence-based prevention programs are likely to utilize multiple strategies from this list of effective approaches. 

For example, Prevention Plus Wellness programs are brief, but they are also: 1) multi-component (screening, feedback and goal setting); 2) interactive (using screening surveys, discussion questions and goal setting activities); 3) using structured, manualized scripts; 4) age appropriate (with versions for children, young adolescents, older adolescents, young adults, and adults); 5) emphasize risks of substance use/misuse for harming healthy behaviors, future image attainment, goal achievement and increasing life problems); and 6) dispel misconceptions about specific drugs (e.g., marijuana is safer than alcohol) and relatedly correcting social norms (e.g., most youth do not use alcohol and drugs).


Since there continues to be confusion about the differences between drug education and drug prevention, even among prevention and education specialists, this article offers important clarification for practitioners.

Knowing the difference between prevention and education is key to selecting appropriate program goals and measures, however, drug prevention’s purpose is more likely aligned with the ultimate goals of youth services professionals and parents.

Regarding best practices, practitioners should select programs and other strategies that emphasize those known to be effective and avoid those known to be ineffective or even harmful.

Selecting and implementing evidence-based programs that combine multiple strategies known to be effective should be an ultimate best practice choice for prevention and education practitioners.

Read the full article: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.1177/0017896920950338#bibr44-0017896920950338

Learn more about Prevention Plus Wellness: https://preventionpluswellness.com 

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