Dare to Differ: Today’s Addiction Prevention Campaigns and DARE’s Mistakes

by AddictionCenter |

As long as substance use disorder and addiction persist as a national health epidemic, there will be activists and policymakers attempting to stamp them out.

That, as addiction experts and healthcare professionals will attest, is no small task. Breaking drug and alcohol addictions in sufferers, although possible with the proper resources, requires immense time and perseverance to achieve.

But what if you could go back in time and stop the whole cycle from occurring? It would certainly be a much simpler, less painful road to recovery for the sufferer, the thought goes, if he or she had never suffered in the first place—if the chain of addiction had been prevented from linking up.

Fighting Drug Use, One School at a Time

Short of time machines or navigable rifts in the space-time continuum, youth prevention campaigns are the next best thing. These social marketing messages, often delivered by police officers right in a student’s classroom, aim to teach elementary school youths the dangers of drug use and addiction.

And yes, you can count the Drug Abuse Resistance Education campaign (or “DARE”) among those anti-addiction initiatives. For former 80s and 90s kids, no explanation is needed. For everyone else, DARE was the prototypical youth prevention campaign. Local law enforcement personnel would visit local schools with branded learning materials in tow, preaching the dangers of substance abuse to students so they will never abuse drugs.

The only problem? The program didn’t work.

Today, with substance use disorders and abuse increasing among young people—particularly of prescription drugs—new youth prevention campaigns like the Narcotics Overdose Prevention and Education program (or NOPE) and Shatterproof hope to recapture DARE’s excitement and spirit minus its various missteps.

“Drug Abuse Resistance Education”

Above: Daren the Lion
Above: Daren the Lion

Drug and alcohol addiction among teenagers and young adults were trumpeted national health concerns before DARE became a cultural phenomenon in the mid-1980s. DARE just gave the battle for young people’s lives a Hollywood sheen (a Los Angeles police chief kickstarted the program in 1983) and a Disney-esque (read: pantless) cartoon mascot. Kids received illustrated manuals outlining how to “say no” to drugs, t-shirts embossed with DARE’s logo, and songs. Oh, the songs.

The program surged in popularity among parents and children alike throughout the decade, becoming the seemingly perfect companion to former First Lady and National Grandma Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign.

But DARE’s lion-sized heart and earworm anthems couldn’t refute the hard stats that adolescent DARE “graduates” fared no better against peer pressure to try drugs than their uninitiated neighbors. Some studies indicate that DARE was even counterproductive—that the program actually made matters worse. Simply put, DARE’s approach to behavioral change, although well-heeled and federally supported, didn’t have a scientific leg to stand on.

 The Next Generation

Decades later, maybe NOPE or Shatterproof can learn from DARE’s mistakes and inspire change.

Instead of relying on the abstinence model DARE pioneered—”just say no” and don’t ask why—NOPE focuses on the visceral impact narcotics overdoses wreak on a user’s and a user’s family’s lives. NOPE has also moved their target age group upon a notch or two above DARE’s, focusing on middle and high schoolers(and, in some cases, college and university students) instead of elementary school kids.

 According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, over-the-counter painkillers are the second-most abused drug by American teens after alcohol and marijuana. 

Assemblies are held at participating schools showcasing NOPE’s cornerstone program: a multimedia presentation depicting friends and parents mourning their loved ones’ passing due to drug abuse. Much like DARE, law enforcement officers visit classrooms at middle and high schools, as well as colleges and universities, to teach students the consequences of drug abuse. According to healthline.com, one such presentation included students being asked to pass an urn—yes, a full one—around the classroom, hopefully bringing home the physical toll drug overdose takes.

Meanwhile, Shatterproof has become something of a fundraising powerhouse for research on addiction prevention since its founding in 2013.

Sporting a sleek, sophisticated web platform to deliver its message, Shatterproof seeks to “change the conversation on drug addiction” and “stop the stigma” regarding drug and alcohol addiction, apparently by directing funds at institutions researching drug and alcohol addiction. Shatterproof has already spent substantial time and energy (read: money) lobbying Capitol Hill for more federal resources to educate young people on how to break drug addiction.

Former business executive and Shatterproof founder Gary Mendell is certainly doing his part, earning the organization some serious Executive Branch bonas fidas when he spoke at the Clinton Foundation’s Health Matters conference in 2013.

“Learning From Your Elders”

Neither NOPE nor Shatterproof are predestined to fail simply because DARE flopped decades ago. If anything, these programs should thank DARE for misfiring so spectacularly that anyone paying the slightest bit of attention can’t miss its big goof: placing flash and funds above scientific muster. It’s not that cartoon lions and deep pockets are a recipe for disaster— DARE still enjoyed a cultural moment, after all. Its just that some preliminary research probably would have gone a long way.

Throwing some Levi’s on that lion couldn’t have hurt, either.

Want to learn more about NOPE and Shatterproof? Visit their websites, here and here, for more information.

Photo of AddictionCenter

Sign-up for our newsletter

Vital perspectives on fighting addiction delivered straight to your inbox.

    Get 24/7 help now. All calls free and confidential.

    (855) 400-5261

    Take control of your life

    Our treatment specialists offer 24/7 assistance.

    • Access to top treatment centers
    • Caring, supportive guidance
    • Financial assistance options

    Call now:

    (855) 400-5261

    OR

    Have us call you:

      Where do calls go?

      Callers will be routed to:

      • Delphi Behavioral Health Group
      • Beach House Recovery Center

      A treatment facility paid to have their center promoted here. To learn more about how to be featured in a paid listing, click here.