In Brief

A five-year study of 48 federally funded community programs aimed at reducing youth substance use is providing insights into the kinds of prevention programs that work for at-risk boys and girls. Funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service Administration's Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP), the National Cross-Site Evaluation of the High-Risk Youth Demonstration Program studied more than 10,500 youth in high-risk communities, such as those with high poverty, crime rates and substance uses.

The researchers found that first-time use of cigarettes, alcohol and marijuana was 12 percent lower in the 6,031 youth who participated in a prevention program than the comparison group of 4,579 youth who did not participate in a CSAP program. Moreover, substance use by youth who had already begun using was 10 percent lower at the end of the prevention program than among comparison youth. Eighteen months later, use levels were 22 percent below comparison youth.

"This study has significantly expanded our understanding of the prevention strategies that have the greatest potential to help even our most vulnerable youth lead drug-free lives," says Ruth Sanchez-Way, PhD, CSAP's director.

Among the study's other findings:

  • Boys in the prevention programs used substances 29 percent less than those not participating, but those effects had faded 18 months after the program's end. In contrast, substance use rates for girls who participated in the programs were only 3 percent lower than the control group of girls at the end of the program, but 9 percent lower 18 months later.

  • Successful programs emphasized life-skills development, connectedness to constructive peers and adults, and self examination. In addition, programs that were evidence-based, had a clear purpose, maintained intensive contact with youth and were offered in after-school settings were most successful.

  • For girls, programs that focused on behavior-related life skills were more successful in sustaining positive effects. For boys, programs that emphasized interaction with peers or adults were most successful.

  • Students in strong families said that family supervision and parental attitudes had a big influence on their choice of friends and decision not to use alcohol, tobacco and marijuana. Likewise, students connected to and successful in school were less likely to use substances or associate with peers who used substances.