“Just Say No” Fails

“America’s Doctor,” Dean Edell, M.D., observes that by expecting young people to abstain from alcohol until the age of 21, we fail to teach them moderation in drinking. But the “just say no” approach is a failure. “First of all, they don’t abstain anyway, they just do it behind their parents’ backs.” Those who promote the teaching of moderation, “including academics, writers, and family doctors, regard drinking as a social skill, like table manners. If your Friday night tradition is pizza and beer, offer a touch of the beer to your teens. Take the mystique out of it. Use the opportunity to express your trust and confidence in them.” 1

Dr. Edell notes that

“Critics of this approach insist that it’s better to teach them to abstain. That would be fine, except it’s not working. Why pretend it is? Take a shot at the experience of other countries. ‘Kids should learn how to drink responsibly under the guidance of someone who cares and won’t let anything happen to them,’ says Dr. Patricia Roy, a family practioner.... She tells her teen patients that ‘the place to find out that your limit is three beers is at home, in your parents’ presence. Not at your friend’s party, or worse, when you’re behind the wheel of a car.’” 2

In some societies and groups, most people drink, they do so daily, yet they have few drinking problems. Those groups familiar to most Americans include Italians, Jews, Spaniards, Portuguese, and Greeks. The success of such groups has three parts:

  1. beliefs about the substance of alcohol,
  2. the act of drinking, and
  3. education about drinking.

These groups share three keys to success in minimizing the incidence of alcohol problems:

  1. the substance of alcohol is seen as essentially neutral. It is neither a poison nor a magic substance that can transform people into what they would like to be.
  2. The act of drinking is seen as natural and normal. There are two equally acceptable options: (1) abstain from alcohol or (2) drink in moderation. However, there is absolutely no tolerance for abusive drinking by anyone of any age at any time for any reason.
  3. Education about alcohol starts early in the home. Young people are taught -- through their parents' good example and under their supervision -- that if they drink, they must do so moderately and responsibly. They would agree that it’s better to learn to drink in the parent’s house than in a fraternity house.

This three-part approach has enabled these and many other groups around the world to avoid the alcohol abuse problems that have plagued our society with its unrealistic age-specific alcohol prohibition. 3

We actually have more influence on our children than anyone or anything else, although we often erroneously feel powerless in the face of television, movies, our children's peers and other parts of society.

Our children learn from observing our behavior and we are the most significant role models in their lives. Therefore, we need to:

  • Be good role models. We need to be examples of good drinking behavior.
  • Reject "do as I say, not as I do." If we abuse alcohol ourselves, we can't expect our children to do otherwise when they begin to drink.
  • Convey appropriate attitudes. We should never laugh at intoxication or intoxicated behaviors. We can use news events, TV programs, movies, and other events as opportunities to discuss what is acceptable and unacceptable drinking behavior.

Instead of trying to scare young people into permanent abstinence, we need to recognize that it is not alcohol but rather the abuse of alcohol that is the problem.


  • 1. Edell, D. Eat, Drink and be Merry: America’s Doctor Tells You Why the Health Experts are Wrong. NY: HarperCollins, 2004, p. 195.
  • 2. Edell, D. Eat, Drink and be Merry: America’s Doctor Tells You Why the Health Experts are Wrong. NY: HarperCollins, 2004, p. 195-196.
  • 3. Hanson, D.J. Preventing Alcohol Abuse: Alcohol, Culture and Control. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1995 and Hanson, D.J. Alcohol Education. Westport, CT, 1996.


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  • Hanson, David J. Alcohol Education: What We Must Do. Westport, CT: Praeger, 1996.
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  • Pittman, David J. The New Temperance Movement. In: Pittman, David J. and White, Helene R. (ed.) Society, Culture, and Drinking Patterns Reexamined. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies, 1991. pp. 775-790.
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