Scare Tactics in Drug Prevention

Community drug prevention coalitions use a variety of strategies to prevent substance use. While many effective strategies are available, some well-meaning groups use tactics that are ineffective and may even be detrimental. This course will explain the differences between effective and ineffective methods of preventing youth substance use.



This course will help coalition members:

  • Gain an understanding of the concept of evidence-based strategies

  • Gain an understanding of the negative impact of fear appeals on youth attitudes toward substance use

Learning Objectives

Participants will:

  • Identify the qualities of evidence-based strategies

  • Give examples of typical youth reactions to fear-based tactics

Evidence-Based Strategies

Prevention Principles

Effective substance abuse prevention programs:

  • increase protective factors and decrease risk factors
  • address all forms of substance use and abuse
  • target specific community problems
  • take demographics of the audience into account
  • reach the audience in multiple settings
  • are evidence-based
  • use long-term strategies 

The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has defined 12 principles for effective drug prevention. These principles can be found on the NIDA website:

Evidence-Based Strategies

What makes a strategy evidence-based?

For a strategy to be accepted as evidence-based, it must be scientifically proven to produce desired results. The criteria for this includes the ability to be duplicated with similar results. It must also be evaluated by professionals in the field. This ensures that the strategy is high quality and will continue to produce the desired results. Using strategies that are not evidence-based wastes time and resources and can actually have negative effects.

A directory of evidence-based strategies can be found at

Types of Strategies

Types of Evidence-Based Prevention Strategies

Individual- Works to increase positive attitudes and skills.


  • Skills Training- Youth Prevention Education is an example of a program that teaches students the skills needed to resist drug use. It is  a classroom-based series of lessons with a short series of booster sessions the following year. 

Environmental- Changes the conditions in an entire community


  • Policy Change- Local ordinances can be introduced that are aimed at reducing substance use. Some examples are increasing minimum age requirements, enacting social host laws, and requiring responsible beverage service training.

Why is it important to use evidence-based strategies in drug prevention?

What are qualities of evidence-based strategies? Select all that apply.

  • They are scientifically proven to be effective
  • They can be duplicated by other professionals
  • They are one-time presentations

What type of strategies effect an entire community?

  • Individual
  • Environmental

Fear Appeals and Scare Tactics

Qualities of Fear Appeals and Scare Tactics

The Fear Factor

We have all heard of communities hosting a mock car crash outside a local school before prom. Many of us watched gruesome videos of car accidents during driver's education. Both strategies were intended to educate youth about the consequences of unsafe driving. This type of strategy has been used for many years.

In recent years studies have been done on the effectiveness of fear appeals in prevention work. Unfortunately these studies have repeatedly shown that fear appeals are not effective. In fact, these tactics can prove to have a negative impact on youth attitudes toward drugs and alcohol. High risk groups may be even more attracted to the idea of drug use. 

Examples of Fear Appeals and Scare Tactics

This Is Your Brain on Drugs

Any Questions?

Well..., actually, yes!

More Questions Than Answers

Prevention efforts of the 1980's included the "Just Say No" campaign and "This is your brain on drugs". These campaigns were well-intended, but did not have the desired effect. They were very simplistic and youth were left with more questions than answers. 

The image of the frying egg was intended to inform teens that drug use would 'fry' their brains. While mild in nature, this was a scare tactic. This campaign led to teens making fun of the message. They would add ideas, such as 'with a side of bacon'. 

Another shortcoming of this campaign was that teens were not given any information on what drugs could actually do. "Just Say No" failed to provide kids with methods for saying no in a variety of situations. 

Youth Reactions

Why don't scare tactics work?

Human beings are hard wired to avoid fear. We build defenses against it and try to control our responses to it. Teens naturally do the same. 

When faced with a drug-related fear appeal teens immediately begin to build defenses and rationalize the messages presented. A common reaction that teens have is, 'It won't happen to me'. In the case of a gruesome image or story teens immediately shut out the negative thoughts. The message does not even have a chance to be fully comprehended. Another response to fear appeals is to assume that adults are manipulating them to behave in certain ways. Additionally, many teens know people who have tried a drug at one point and had no negative consequences. This situation negates the message and indicates that it is a lie.

Why don't fear appeals or scare tactics work?

How might teens react to fer appeals or scare tactics? Select all that apply.

  • "It won't happen to me."
  • Making fun of the message
  • "They're just trying to manipulate me."
  • Avoid thinking about the message or image.