Steps to Implementing Drug Abuse Prevention Programs in Local Health Departments

19297097 marijuanaBy Sheri Lawal, MPH, CHES, Program Analyst, Injury and Violence Prevention, NACCHO

The National Institute on Drug Abuse defines addiction as “a chronic, relapsing brain disease that is characterized by compulsive drug seeking and use, despite harmful consequences.”1 Most illicit drug use typically begins in childhood or adolescence, when adolescents establish patterns of behavior and make choices that affect their health.1,2 Drug use during adolescence severely increases the likelihood of addiction later in life.1 Drug abuse is preventable, and public health professionals should strive to prevent drug use in youth before it starts.

When implemented with fidelity, research-based drug-use prevention programs result in reduced use of alcohol, tobacco, and illegal drugs. Local health departments (LHDs) and their partners can follow three steps to prevent drug abuse among youth: (1) assess the problem; (2) determine community readiness for prevention; and (3) develop a plan.3

Assess the Problem

Prior to selecting a program, LHDs and their partners must assess the type of drug problem within their community and determine the relevant risk factors. LHDs can use national data sources to assess whether or not their communities have a problem with teen drug use. Sources of data include the following:

  • National Survey on Drug Use and Health—Funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, this annual survey of tobacco, alcohol, and illicit drugs involves interviews with a random sample of approximately 70,000 individuals ages 12 and older.4
  • Monitoring the Future Survey—This survey measures drug, alcohol, and cigarette use and related attitudes among approximately 50,000 students nationwide in grades eight, 10, and 12.5
  • Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System—This surveillance system comprises national, state, and local surveys conducted every two years among high school students. It monitors tobacco, alcohol, other drug use, and other health risk behaviors.6

Additionally, the LHD can collect data on community awareness of the problem and the risk and protective factors throughout the community.

Determine Community Readiness for Prevention

LHDs may determine community readiness by analyzing the nature and level of drug coverage in the local news and by researching whether local public officials have taken a position on drug abuse in the community. LHDs and their partners may interview key informants, such as school administrators or parents, to learn more about community norms. LHDs may start by meeting with community stakeholders, engaging the media, and forming groups or coalitions. If drug abuse prevention programs are in place, the LHD may evaluate and improve ongoing programs or expand those programs to reach additional populations. In the absence of drug abuse prevention programs, LHDs can identify and implement research-based programs that will address the community’s drug problem.

Develop a Plan

Public health professionals should determine which research-based prevention programs fit the needs of their communities and consider the following core elements of effective research-based programs:1

  • Structure: addresses program type (e.g., community, school, family), audience (e.g., all youth, middle school students, high-risk youth and their families), and setting (e.g., billboards, after-school programs, clinics).
  • Content: composed of information (e.g., drug trends, drug effects, drug abuse symptoms), skills development (e.g., social skills, resistance skills, parenting skills), methods (e.g., tolerance policies, norms change, home-drug testing, curfew), and services (e.g., drug-free zones, school counseling and assistance, family therapy). Information should be paired with skills-building, policy change, and availability of prevention services.
  • Delivery: includes program selection or adaptation (e.g., Spanish-speaking populations, gender, rural) and implementation (e.g., consistent multimedia messages, booster sessions, recruitment/retention).

Moreover, LHDs should engage organizations that serve youth in planning to implement drug abuse prevention programs in the community. Such organizations may provide important ideas, resources, and expertise needed to implement such programs. Together, the LHD and its community partners can build on existing resources or programs, develop short- and long-term goals, and determine a plan for monitoring and evaluation.


  1. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2014). Drugs, brains, and behavior: The science of addiction. Accessed January 20, 2015, from
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Adolescent and school health. Accessed January 26, 2015, from
  3. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2003). Preventing drug use among children and adolescents: A research-based guide for parents, educators, and community leaders. Accessed January 20, 2015, from
  4. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. (2015). Population Data/NSDUH. Accessed January 30, 2015, from
  5. National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2015.) Monitoring the future. Accessed January 30, 2015, from
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2014). CDC releases 2013 Youth Risk Behavior Survey (YRBS) results. Accessed January 30, 2015, from

This post is an excerpt from the NACCHO fact sheet Shatter the Myths: How Local Health Departments can Prevent Drug Abuse among Youth. To read more about preventing drug abuse and for a list of drug abuse prevention programs, read the fact sheet.

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