The Benefits and Costs of Drug Use Prevention
The Benefits and Costs of Drug Use Prevention
Clarifying a Cloudy IssueThe United States has for some time now been spending tens of billions of dollars a year in an attempt to control the trafficking and use of illicit drugs; most of those dollars have been used to support stricter enforcement. Few people, however, would claim that America's drug problem has been solved. There is growing doubt that the United States will be able to incarcerate its way out of its drug problem, and polls have shown a corresponding increase in public support for preventive approaches to reducing drug consumption.  But how effective is prevention--and at what price? Would a national program be feasible--and justifiable?
These questions were addressed by a team of researchers from RAND's Drug Policy Research Center. The new research supported the following conclusions:
- Model school-based drug
use prevention programs can reduce lifetime cocaine consumption,
although by relatively small proportions--between 2 and 11 percent.
- Prevention, however, is inexpensive, so for each program dollar
spent, it can reduce cocaine consumption as much as some enforcement
strategies can--although not as much as treatment.
- A nationwide school-based prevention program would cost only a tiny fraction of what the United States now spends on drug control, but at this point in the epidemic its effect on the cocaine-using population would be small and slow to accumulate. (More could have been accomplished, however, had prevention been implemented much earlier in the current cocaine epidemic.)
- The results apply to
school-based programs only. There are insufficient data available from
evaluations of community- and media-based programs to assess their
- The results apply to model
school-based prevention programs--i.e., the few that have been
proven effective by formal evaluations. Many popular programs have not
yet been demonstrated to affect the use of illicit drugs. This research
compares the cost-effectiveness of model prevention programs with
average enforcement and treatment programs.
- The analysis
is concerned principally with prevention's effectiveness at reducing
cocaine consumption and largely ignores other benefits.
- The range of plausible effectiveness estimates cannot confidently be narrowed down from the current 2 to 11 percent. Much of this uncertainty springs from lack of research on the factors involved.
The Programs and Their Effectiveness
The new DPRC results are based on evaluations by other researchers  of two proven programs: Project ALERT (developed at RAND) and the Life Skills Training Program. Both use a "social-influence" strategy--one in which adolescents are motivated to resist pro-drug messages from peers and the media and taught methods for doing so. As evaluated, Project ALERT consisted of 11 sessions offered to seventh- and eighth-graders, while Life Skills Training consisted of 30 sessions during seventh, eight, and ninth grades.
These evaluations did not measure effectiveness at reducing cocaine consumption; typically, those who use cocaine do not begin doing so until well after their early adolescent years--and after the evaluations have stopped collecting data. Data were available, though, on use of a drug more commonly consumed by teens--marijuana. And it is known from the National Household Survey of Drug Abuse (NHSDA) that those who initiate marijuana use later are less likely to use cocaine. Furthermore, according to the survey, those who do use cocaine are apt to consume smaller quantities over the course of their lives. Finally, those who never initiate marijuana use are very unlikely ever to use cocaine, and the few who do use it consume relatively little.
The researchers assumed that, of the reductions in marijuana initiation reported over the course of the program evaluations, half were permanent (i.e., these students would never use marijuana) and half represented delays to the late teen years. The researchers then used the marijuana-cocaine relationships from the household survey to "translate" these preventions and delays into percentage reductions in lifetime cocaine use. Say, for example, that a 14-year-old is about to start using marijuana and a prevention program gets him or her to delay to age 18. It would then be inferred that his or her eventual cocaine consumption will decrease by the same percentage as the household survey has shown cocaine consumption to fall between those who initiate marijuana at 14 and those who do so at 18. But the estimate of aggregate cocaine use reduction so derived is only an initial one. To come up with their final one, the researchers took into account two other factors that would tend to decrease the estimate and two that would tend to increase it:
- The relationships in the household
survey results may be to some degree coincidental; to the extent that
they are, the "translations" described above may be exaggerated.
- Program effectiveness may drop as the demonstrations that were
evaluated are scaled up into programs with a broader clientele.
* Because a prevention program keeps some participants from using cocaine, people whom they would otherwise have influenced to use cocaine will no longer do so.
- Because prevention lowers the demand for cocaine, the market shrinks marginally, so enforcement becomes a little more efficient, and dealer costs and cocaine prices rise--enough so that some users cut back who were never in a prevention program.
Cost-EffectivenessThe percentage reduction was converted into a cost- effectiveness value that could be compared with those of other cocaine control programs. That value was expressed as kilograms of cocaine consumption reduced per million dollars spent. The conversion required two steps:
- Multiplying the percentage reduction by the average lifetime amount
of cocaine that program participants would be expected to consume in the
absence of prevention.
- Dividing by the cost of the program per participant. The budgetary cost of prevention is limited to curriculum materials and teacher training and works out to only a few dollars per participant. However, from society's perspective, the largest cost of running school-based drug prevention is the intangible cost to the students of not being taught academic topics during the time taken up by the program. The researchers assumed that this lost learning opportunity was at least as valuable as a prorated share of the amount spent on education in terms of teacher time and facility investment. That came to approximately $150 per student.
Social Benefits Per Dollar SpentAnother way to evaluate the worth of prevention is to ask whether a dollar invested yields at least a dollar in benefits. Researchers outside DPRC had previously estimated the social costs of cocaine use in terms of health, crime, and other costs. A benefit-cost ratio for prevention could thus be straightforwardly derived from the use reduction estimates cited above. These worked out to be between 64 cents and about $5.60 for every dollar spent, with the mid-range preferred estimate at approximately $2.40.
These ratios, however, omit the non-cocaine-related benefits of school-based prevention. Such programs have also been shown to reduce cigarette and alcohol consumption. Although the effects for these more socially accepted drugs seem to be very small in percentage terms, the total social costs of these drugs are much larger than those for cocaine. Rough calculations suggest that, when reductions in those costs are taken into account, even the low benefit estimate is brought up to nearly a dollar. Furthermore, prevention programs generate benefits unrelated to reduced drug use that are not estimated in this study. It is thus highly likely that model school-based prevention programs are a good investment in terms of generating at least a dollar's worth of benefits for every dollar spent.
A National Program: Affordability and EffectivenessAt $150 per student, a national school-based drug prevention program would clearly be affordable. It would cost about $550 million to offer it to all 3.75 million children reaching seventh grade in any one year. That's only a small fraction of the $40 billion the nation annually spends on drug control.
Such a program would not, however, dramatically alter the course of the current cocaine epidemic. The percentage effects cited above are modest, and it would take decades for them to accumulate, because the current population of cocaine users is too old to be affected directly by school-based prevention (see Figure 2).
Concluding ObservationsTo the conclusions mentioned at the outset of this brief, the DPRC research team added the following insights:
- A prevention
program's effects spill over to nonparticipants. In fact, most of the
reduction in cocaine use brought about by prevention would be among
those not in the program (see Figure 3). Evaluations ignoring this
effect thus ignore most of a program's cocaine-related benefits.
Moreover, some of the reduction in use among participants occurs among
those who do use some cocaine. Thus, only about a quarter of the total
reduction in cocaine use brought about by prevention occurs by keeping
program participants from initiating cocaine.
- By the time Americans realize they have a
serious problem with a drug, it is too late to run a maximally effective
prevention program. The years of greatest effectiveness may have
already passed. Furthermore, use may spread most quickly among adults
(as it did for cocaine) who could only have benefited from prevention
had it been available when they were young adolescents. An argument
might thus be made for sustaining prevention regardless of current drug
use trends, so that it can help blunt the effects of future epidemics.
 Although "prevention" can be interpreted broadly to include at least some of the actions of law enforcement, we use the term here in its more commonly understood sense as involving some kind of anti-drug-use education.
 See, for example, Phyllis L. Ellickson and Robert M. Bell, "Drug Prevention in Junior High: A Multi-Site Longitudinal Test," Science, Vol. 247, 1990, pp. 1265-1372 (also available as RAND/R-3919-CHF); and Gilbert J. Botvin et al., "Long-Term Follow-Up Results of a Randomized Drug Abuse Prevention Trial in a White Middle-Class Population," Journal of the American Medical Association, Vol. 273, No. 14, April 1995, pp. 1106-1112.
RAND research briefs summarize research that has been more fully documented elsewhere. This research brief describes work sponsored by The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, with additional funding from the National Science Foundation, Carnegie Mellon University, and through DPRC, The Ford Foundation; it is documented in An Ounce of Prevention, a Pound of Uncertainty: The Cost-Effectiveness of School-Based Drug Prevention Programs, by Jonathan P. Caulkins, C. Peter Rydell, Susan S. Everingham, James Chiesa, and Shawn Bushway, MR-923-RWJ, 1999, 194 pp., ISBN: 0-8330-2560-0. Abstracts of all RAND documents may be viewed on the World Wide Web (). Publications are distributed to the trade by National Book Network. RAND® is a registered trademark. RAND is a nonprofit institution that helps improve policy and decisionmaking through research and analysis; its publications do not necessarily reflect the opinions or policies of its research sponsors.
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