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Prevention Efforts in Jr High Said Not To Curb Later Drug Use

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School-based programs to combat adolescent drug use lose their effectiveness once the lessons have ended, a team of RAND Corporation researchers has concluded in a new report.

The report, "Preventing Adolescent Drug Use: Long-Term Results of a Junior High Program,'' released last week, is the first study to evaluate the lasting effects of a comprehensive drug-prevention program developed by RAND on middle and high school students.

Earlier studies have shown that well-designed drug-prevention programs for adolescents can reduce illegal use of drugs, particularly marijuana, by as much as 50 percent in the short term.

But the new study concludes that "it is unlikely early prevention gains can be maintained without additional prevention efforts during high school.''

In the seven-year study, 7th and 8th graders in 30 schools in California and Oregon were taught the "Project Alert'' curriculum developed by RAND to help students acquire the motivational skills to resist drugs. Students were queried annually from the 7th through 12th grades on their knowledge about and use of drugs.

3,600 Students

The 3,600 randomly selected students were divided into three groups. One group was taught about the dangers of cigarettes, marijuana, and alcohol by an adult health educator, while the second group was taught by an adult teacher and two "teen leaders'' from neighboring high schools. A control group did not receive the curriculum.

In 11 classes lasting 50 minutes each, students in the treatment groups learned scientific facts about drug addiction, role-played ways to resist drugs, and discussed myths about drugs.

For homework, students completed quizzes based on class discussions and read drug-education brochures.

Early results showed that the program "significantly reduced'' current, weekly, and daily cigarette smoking among 8th graders who had previously experimented with tobacco. One-third fewer students at that grade level had tried cigarettes or marijuana for the first time compared with students who were not enrolled in Project Alert classes.

The program also curbed cigarette and marijuana use equally in schools with high and low minority populations and had a "significant impact'' both on adolescents who had never used either substance and on those who had, the report says.

Disappearing Effects

By the 9th grade, however, "the positive impact had disappeared,'' the study says.

Students in the treatment programs retained a knowledge of the negative consequences of drug use through the 10th grade, but did not substantially alter their behavior in later grades, the study says.

Among 7th graders in the "teen leader'' group who reported using marijuana regularly, researchers "found a reduction of nearly 50 percent in weekly marijuana use immediately after the 7th-grade lessons.'' But one year later, the reduction in use shrank to 25 percent and ceased to be statistically significant, the report says.

The data demonstrate that continued drug use, especially among students who have already experimented with drugs or alcohol, is a difficult habit to break, said Phyllis L. Ellickson, the study's lead author and a senior behavioral scientist at RAND.

"Very few adults are able to quit smoking on their first attempt,'' Ms. Ellickson noted. "Even successful quitters typically try to stop at least three times over a period of several years. The same pattern applies for drug [use].''

Another reason that drug use continues through high school despite educational efforts is that students are increasingly exposed to opportunities where drugs are readily available, she added.

"Kids just don't all of a sudden become immune to peer pressure when they make the transition into high school,'' Ms. Ellickson said.

"Adolescents are probably more vulnerable to drug use and need continued reinforcement and support during those high school years,'' she added.

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