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School program cuts adolescent drug use.

School program cuts adolescent drug use

An educational program that helps seventh-graders identify and resist social pressures to use drugs substantially reduces their consumption of cigarettes and marijuana by the eighth grade, according to a new study. However, initial drops in alcohol use disappeared by the eighth grade, and students who smoked cigarettes regularly by junior high school smoked even more after participating in the prevention program.

Despite these limitations, "school-based programs have important potential for decreasing substance use among young people," contend Phyllis L. Ellickson and Robert M. Bell of the RAND Corp. in Santa Monica, Calif., in the March 16 SCIENCE.

Many prevention efforts targeting teenagers have failed because they emphasized only long-term dangers of drug use and sometimes exaggerated harmful effects, the researchers say. The new approach, known as Project ALERT, explores social pressures to use alcohol, cigarettes and marijuana and offers students a repertoire of strategies for resisting those pressures. Students take part in small group exercises and practice techniques for dealing with peer pressures to use drugs.

All seventh-graders at 30 junior high schools in California and Oregon participated in Project ALERT between 1984 and 1986. The schools encompass urban, suburban and rural settings. Nine are attended mainly by students from minority groups, and 18 are located in poor or lower-middle-class neighborhoods.

In 20 schools, students attended weekly sessions for two months, as well as three "booster" lessons early in the eighth grade. An adult health educator taught the program in 10 of the schools; high school students assisted adult teachers in the other 10. Ten control schools did not receive the curriculum.

Compared with students at control schools, Project ALERT participants reported modest reductions in alcohol use three months after the program ended, but their drinking rapidly returned to former levels and held steady through the booster lessons. The widespread availability and use of alcohol throughout society apparently undermined messages about resisting pressures to drink, the researchers maintain.

Cigarette "experimenters," who reported smoking fewer than three times in the previous year and not at all in the month before the program began, smoked markedly less than controls after the sessions ended and maintained those levels through the booster lessons. However, students who already used cigarettes regularly by seventh grade actually smoked more after Project ALERT. These individuals had a number of family and behavior problems, and were probably most influenced by heavy-smoking friends, Ellickson and Bell say.

On the other hand, Project ALERT markedly curbed initiation of marijuana use and reduced current use among students who had not tried marijuana or cigarettes by junior high. It also held down marijuana use among students who already smoked cigarettes, a group at high risk of trying marijuana.
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Author:Bower, B.
Publication:Science News
Date:Mar 17, 1990
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