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Prevention Approaches

Individual and environmental intervention strategies are two primary approaches to preventing substance use disorders.

Some prevention interventions are designed to help individuals develop the intentions and skills to act in a healthy manner. Others focus on creating environments that support healthy behavior. Research indicates that the most effective prevention interventions incorporate both approaches. Targeted prevention identifies and reaches out to populations that are at a higher risk for substance misuse.

Any prevention approach should be used with the Strategic Prevention Framework (SPF). Learn more about applying the SPF.

The prevention workforce must also have the cultural competence to effectively engage with the individuals or communities they are targeting. Learn more about cultural competence and the SPF.

Sustainability is another important component of prevention efforts, and the focus of any such effort should be on sustaining positive outcomes, not sustaining any particular program. Learn more about sustainability.

Individual-level Strategies

Many prevention approaches focus on helping people develop the knowledge, attitudes, and skills they need to change their behavior. Often, these individual-level strategies include classes on healthy behaviors. A 2009 National Academy of Sciences report on preventable mental, emotional, and behavioral problems in young people found that effective classroom-based programs:

  • Focus on life and social skills
  • Focus on direct and indirect (social) influences on substance use
  • Involve interactions among participants
  • Emphasize norms for, and a social commitment to, not using drugs
  • Include community components
  • Are delivered primarily by peer leaders
  • Emphasize the benefit of building life skills and social resistance

Environmental Strategies

Environmental strategies take a broader approach than individual-level strategies. Prevention professionals use environmental strategies to change the conditions within a community, including physical, social, or cultural factors that may lead to substance use. For example, prevention planners may decide to target laws or norms that are favorable towards alcohol misuse or illegal substance use. Environmental strategies are most effective when implemented as part of a comprehensive approach.

Environmental strategies include communication and education strategies, which seek to influence community norms by raising awareness and creating community support for prevention. Environmental strategies may also use enforcement methods to deter people and organizations from illegal substance use.

Communication and Education

Messages communicated through the media influence how the public thinks and behaves. Communications strategies—public education, social marketing, media advocacy, and media literacy—can be used to influence community norms, increase public awareness, and attract community support for a variety of prevention issues.

  • Public education is designed to increase the public’s knowledge and awareness of a particular health issue. Public education campaigns may combine public service announcements (PSAs) on television, radio, or online with billboards and posters. Familiar public education slogans include “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk” and “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”
  • Social marketing involves using advertising principles to change social norms and promote healthy behaviors. Like public education, social marketing uses multiple media channels to message targeted groups of individuals. However, social marketing campaigns do more than provide information. They try to persuade people to adopt a new behavior by showing them the benefit they’ll gain by doing so.
  • Media advocacy attempts to shape the way social issues are discussed in the media. The goal is to build support for changes in public policy. By working directly with outlets to change both the amount of coverage the media provides and the content of that coverage, media advocates hope to influence the way people talk and think about a social or public policy.
  • Media literacy teaches young people critical-viewing skills. This approach seeks to help children and teenagers analyze, understand, and evaluate the media messages they encounter.


Enforcement and policy are closely connected, but it is important to remember that policies are unlikely to be successful without enforcement. Effective enforcement requires visibility. People need to see that substance use prevention is a community priority and that violating related laws and regulations will result in consequences.

Enforcement strategies may include:

  • Surveillance. May include the use of compliance checks and other efforts to determine if people are complying with existing laws. Examples of surveillance environmental strategies to address underage drinking include prohibiting sales to minors and compliance checks (covert underage buyer programs).
  • Penalties, fines, and detention. These strategies create consequences for people or institutions that don’t comply with an existing policy.
  • Community policing. Encourages citizens and community members to participate in prevention efforts. This could include neighborhood watches, efforts to remove sources of alcohol or drugs, or partnering with law enforcement to discourage underage drinking and substance use.
  • Incentives. Incentives offer rewards that reinforce healthy behaviors, such as drug education programs for children that include stickers and other small prizes.


In the prevention field, collaboration allows for partners with different perspectives to work together towards solving a common problem. This approach leverages the expertise of multiple groups and increases the likelihood that their collective efforts will bring about change.

State epidemiological outcomes workgroups (SEOWs) offer a strong example of this type of collaboration. These workgroups include epidemiologists, state and local officials, program planners, community stakeholders, and prevention practitioners who work together to collect, analyze, and disseminate substance use and behavioral health data. Workgroup members then make data-driven decisions as they integrate the SPF into their prevention planning.

You can enhance the effectiveness of your collaboration efforts by:

  • Involving communities that are already mobilized or ready to engage in community change
  • Combining collaboration with communications and education strategies. This can increase public awareness of a particular issue or program, attract community support, reinforce prevention messages, and keep the public informed of program progress.
  • Looking at what the people around you are already doing to prevent substance use disorders, and build on their efforts. You can learn from both their successes and their mistakes.

Find out what prevention practitioners in other states and communities are doing though:

Publications and Resources

Access more CAPT tools and other learning resources.

Last Updated: 07/21/2016