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Abstinence approaches to drug education


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Abstinence approaches to drug education: A UKHRA position statement.

UKHRA is aware of the use of abstinence approaches in some drug education and prevention programmes, particularly in the United States. These have some similarities to abstinence approaches to sex education with regard to their methodology, assertions concerning effectiveness, and origins in what is essentially a moralising view.

Such programmes:

  • claim an abstinence outcome as a result of their use;
  • demand abstinence - often by 'pledges' - by participants;
  • see failure to become or to remain abstinent as a failure of the individual and not the approach, (which can result in the blaming and abandonment of such individuals); and
  • see abstinence as an end in itself, not one approach amongst others.

UKHRA understands:

  • that drug education and drug prevention are not the same;
  • that drug education can contribute to drug prevention; and
  • that the abstinence approach to drug education and prevention assumes and allows one, and only one, outcome


UKHRA believes that drug prevention is intended to prevent drug use from starting (primary prevention) or to stop existing drug use from continuing (secondary prevention) and that drug education should:

  • be about providing information and skills to support informed and autonomous decision making;
  • inform and provide opportunities for the exchange and discussion of knowledge, experiences, attitudes and assumptions;
  • raise knowledge and awareness;
  • contribute to attitude changes towards drug use and drug users;
  • promote critical thinking;
  • challenge normative assumptions; and
  • include discussion of abstinence as one option and choice amongst many in substance-using life-styles.

UKHRA believes that abstinence programmes:

  • displace or become a substitute for genuine drug education programmes;
  • are unrealistic and dishonest - in methodology and claim - and do not meet the needs of young people or others;
  • are linked to conformist and moralising approaches to young people, social and health behaviours, drug use and drug users;
  • discourage problem drug users from acknowledging their situations and seeking help and support from individuals, agencies and services; and
  • worsen the problem they claim to be able to prevent


UKHRA recommends that:

  • education and prevention are not confused or synonymised;
  • although prevention outcomes are a legitimate aim, they should not be used as an indication of the success or failure of, drug education programmes;
  • the present general UK practice of providing pluralist coverage in education or prevention work - including abstinence and harm minimisation - be maintained;
  • government agencies and departments do not demand abstinence outcomes from education or prevention programmes; nor make such outcomes a condition of funding;
  • all involved in drug education recognise that existing evidence does not support many of the claims of abstinence programmes.




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