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Abstinence-based education programs are formally based instructional programs that stress not becoming involved in some particular behavior or activity as a means of reducing participation in potentially damaging and destructive behaviors. The majority of these programs are primarily funded by state and federal organizations, and implemented in public school systems as an attempt to deliver their message in the early development of individuals who may be susceptible to potentially damaging behaviors, such as abstinence-based sex education programs in the public school system. These programs concentrate on the need for abstinence from sexual activity in students until marriage as a means of attempting to avoid issues with sexually transmitted diseases, teenage pregnancy, etc. However, according to numerous sources, such as a research review published in the journal Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, these types of sex education programs have numerous flaws.

There have also been various abstinence-based educational programs implemented in public schools and universities that have focused on issues surrounding substance abuse, including alcohol abuse. One of the most known of these programs occurred in the 1980s and 1990s, the “Just Say No” program pushed by the Reagan administration in public schools. These programs continue to have some support in spite of numerous criticisms.

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Abstinence-Based Alcohol Education

Most states have some provision for providing education regarding alcohol use and substance abuse, and many states require students in public schools to receive formal instruction on these issues; see the NASBE database for information on the policies for each state. Attempts to teach children about alcohol consumption in schools have resulted in significant controversy due to vastly differing viewpoints of Americans on this issue. According to the book Approaches to Substance Abuse and Addiction in Education Communities: A Guide to Practices that Support Recovery in Adolescents and Young Adults, numerous methods to instruct students regarding alcohol use have been attempted, including:

 

  • Abstinence-based programs that can be summed up by the phrase simply don’t
  • Disease model approaches that emphasize the consumption of alcohol as a disease
  • Social economic model approaches that present statistical information regarding the effects of the irresponsible use of alcohol
  • Alternative methods that attempt to give students alternatives to drinking alcohol

 

The primary focus of abstinence-based alcohol education is simply to discourage the individual from consuming alcohol at all. The implementation of alcohol abstinence-based programs or other awareness programs in public schools will vary significantly from state to state, but many of these programs attempt to target students at an early age in an attempt to thwart alcohol abuse later. This is in response to reports from organizations like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) that indicate a significant percentage of young children (e.g., ages 12-17) report using alcohol at least once. Early alcohol use is considered to be a significant risk factor for later alcohol abuse issues.

Abstinence-based alcohol education programs often employ several different tactics. These tactics may vary from program the program, and the emphasis may be placed on more than one specific approach. Some techniques are used consistently across programs. For example, the types of scare tactics seen in driver education programs (e.g., showing films of particularly brutal car accidents) are often used in these abstinence-based programs; however, scare tactics are notoriously ineffective. Other programs that attempt to employ approaches that have research-based evidence, including the use of numerous educational models that help students to understand the signs and consequences of substance abuse, appear to have better results.

Some colleges may offer courses and even require undergraduate students to complete a course in substance abuse education, particularly alcohol abuse education in an effort to reduce binge drinking on campus. In addition, most universities have strict policies regarding underage drinking and severe penalties for students who are caught engaging in this practice. The approach used in many of these courses is more educational in nature and stresses the harmful and negative risks associated with heavy consumption of alcohol. Scare tactics are also used, but these programs are often ineffective.

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Do Abstinence-Based Educational Programs Work?

Research, such as a 2004 study published in the Journal of Drug and Alcohol Review, indicated that the use of substance abuse educational programs in schools resulted in a reduction in the costs of addictive behaviors compared to not having these programs at all, but the overall effect of these programs in reducing lifetime use of cocaine, marijuana, or alcohol was estimated to be mild to moderate at best. The study did not focus on abstinence-based educational programs but included all forms of educational interventions designed to reduce substance abuse. Perhaps a better indicator of the use of abstinence-based education comes from the yearly data provided by governmental organizations like SAMHSA. The data indicates that there are variations in the numbers of individuals under the age of 21 who report using alcohol from year to year; however, in general, the figures remain relatively consistent over blocks of time. Thus, it is clear that abstinence-based educational programs are not having a significant effect in reducing use of alcohol in young people.

Abstinence-based educational programs, like the public policy in the United States that mandates that all individuals under the age of 21 remain abstinent from alcohol, are overall highly unsuccessful.  Even years ago, sources like the National Research Council and the 1996 book Alcohol Education: What We Must Do, which is still cited by current researchers, indicated that there are numerous reasons for the lack of effects associated with purely abstinence-based education programs, including their attempt to present the use of alcohol in a manner that is inconsistent with the experience of students who are in these programs. For example, these programs often attempt to present the notion that the use of alcohol in individuals under the age of 21 is very rare, and this notion clashes with the experience of students in middle school and high school. Many of these students know of classmates who drink alcohol at parties or on weekends, or they may use alcohol themselves. When information from an educational program clashes with an individual’s personal experience, the individual tends to devalue the entire program.

Instead, these programs should cite information from credible sources regarding the use and abuse of alcohol in individuals under the age of 21 (e.g., SAMHSA).  Instructors in these programs should also discuss how the students’ personal experiences fit with the information provided by the program.

In addition, according to the above sources, abstinence-based programs propagate obvious inaccurate information. Some of these inaccuracies are outlined below.

  • The notion that use of alcohol is the same as abuse of alcohol: This is an obvious myth. When younger individuals are exposed to this myth, it results in a natural devaluation of any other information that the source of the myth provides to them.
  • The continued use of scare tactics: This may include exaggerating the dangers of alcohol. Most younger people are not directly exposed to many of the dangers that occur in chronic heavy drinkers. The dangers of alcohol abuse should be presented to these individuals, but use of scare tactics should be avoided.
  • The emphasis that the consumption of alcohol results in a gateway to abuse of harder drugs: Again, this is inconsistent with the experience of most younger people. Interestingly, despite numerous attempts by government researchers and decades of other research, the notion of a “gateway drug” has never been substantiated.

Abstinence-based education programs also clash with other areas of the individual’s personal experience. For example, use of alcohol is widely accepted in American culture, and many young people have observed their own parents drinking alcohol. Using an abstinence-based approach is unrealistic with the experience of the majority of individuals who are required to attend these programs. These approaches are often viewed as unrealistic, and individuals in them frequently end up romanticizing the use of alcohol as opposed to understanding its effects. In addition, abstinence-based educational programs do not present individuals with information on responsible use of alcohol, which would be more consistent with the goals of the program to reduce the dangers associated with alcohol use.

Because it is illegal for individuals under the age of 21 to possess or drink alcohol, it is important that these programs stress the legal consequences of an individual who is under 21 purchasing or possessing alcohol, or being arrested under the influence of alcohol. Penalties and sanctions for violating these laws should be strictly enforced, and parents should emphasize the need for their children to avoid alcohol use until they turn 21. However, it would be unrealistic to think that individuals under the age of 21 are never going to break the law, not going to be tempted to use alcohol, and not going to drink alcohol. According to the book Alcohol: Science, Policy, and Public Health, because alcohol is such a important aspect of the culture and readily available, even to individuals under the age of 21, alcohol education programs should attempt to do the following:

  • Emphasize the legal aspects of alcohol use for individuals under the age of 21
  • Emphasize the dangers of drinking and driving, and emphasize the use of designated drivers
  • Present both sides of the issue, including positive and negative effects of drinking
  • Emphasize that the decision to drink or not to drink alcohol is a personal choice, but those who choose to drink alcohol are responsible for their behavior while under the influence
  • Emphasize that people who choose to drink should respect the decision of anyone who chooses not to drink alcohol
  • Emphasize that drinking until one becomes intoxicated is NOT responsible use of alcohol
  • Impart accurate and unbiased information about the consumption of alcohol, including its immediate and long-term effects
  • Accurately distinguish between use and abuse of alcohol
  • Emphasize that people serving alcohol need to be responsible and stop serving people who are intoxicated
  • Educate individuals on effective ways to reduce potential harm or threats that can result from alcohol abuse
  • Remain relevant to the experience of the target group, such as students, young people, etc.
  • Remove the stigma of alcoholism, alcohol abuse, and substance abuse in general
  • Offer resources for students who suffer from issues with alcohol use that are nonjudgmental and can serve as safe havens