Reality-Based Alcohol Education

Alcohol education has rather consistently failed to reduce the incidence of alcohol abuse. The most popular and widespread alcohol and drug abuse prevention program in the US, the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) program, has been declared  ineffective by the US Department of Education, the US Surgeon General, the National Academy of Sciences, and the US General Accountability Office.

Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-Based Approach to Drug Education & Student Assistance, a publication of the Drug Policy Alliance, outlines an alternative to the current ineffective alcohol education programs and policies in high school. The following is a summary of that publication with emphasis on the alcohol component.

The current approach in American high schools to teach abstinence and to impose strict punishments to those students who are caught consuming any alcohol. Proponents of the current system advocate such punishments as suspension and expulsion from school.
The Drug Policy Alliance promotes a reality-based program with three major elements:

  • Alcohol Education. Alcohol education should be honest, balanced, interactive, and delivered in a way that involves the full participation of students.
  • Intervention/assistance. Intervention for students who need help should be an integral part of alcohol education.
  • Restorative Consequences. Severe punishments such as suspensions and expulsions should be replaced by a restorative process in which students identify harms they have caused and make amends.
Guiding Realities

I. The consumption of alcohol is common among high school students and most young people consider it a normal and accepted part of teenage social life.

Although underage drinking is at its lowest level in decades (unlike the use of illegal drugs), most older teens have at least tried alcohol. On the other hand, the abuse of alcohol is not a common occurrence.

II. Programs designed to “inoculate” children against later alcohol experimentation have failed.

Teens tend to be very skeptical about the dire warning messages they received in elementary school. However, it can be professionally dangerous for teachers to even acknowledge the possibility of harmless use or the positive aspects of moderate alcohol consumption, even for adults consumers. But by omitting these realities, we compromise our credibility.

III. Alcohol education must consider the beliefs of young people in order to be effective.

IV. Severe punishment of those caught with alcohol has not affected consumption rates among other high school students.

Defying adults through oppositional behavior is a tactic frequently used in striking back at what many young people see as unreasonable and arbitrary rules and decisions. On the other hand, research has demonstrated that feeling connected to family and school is the best predictor of positive health choices by young people, including abstinence.


I. Alcohol education must be honest, comprehensive, and recognize students’ intelligence and experience.

Advice to abstain from alcohol must be grounded in accurate and balanced facts instead of inaccuracies and exaggeration. Alcohol education must avoid being guilty of “health terrorism.” It should always emphasize safety as the bottom line. Abstinence should always be offered as the best and safest choice, but it must go beyond simplistic abstinence-only messages. For example, young people need to know how to recognize alcohol poisoning, the dangers of riding with an intoxicated driver, and similar useful information.

II. Alcohol education for teenagers should use an interactive learning approach.
Research suggests that alcohol education is most effective when delivered interactively.

III. Secondary schools should coordinate student assistance with their alcohol education program. The student assistance program should identify, assist, and, when appropriate, refer students with problems to a counseling and/or treatment.

IV. Schools should implement a policy of restorative practices instead of expulsion or suspension.

Restorative practices are “a set of practical responses to student behavior and proactive strategies that strengthen accountability and improve school culture.”
“Young people are often unaware of the harmful impact of their behavior on themselves or others. A restorative experience, which is an interactive process rather than a punitive sentence, begins with awareness. The individual then finds ways to repair the damage, including service activities and making personal amends.”

“There is nothing new about restorative practices, which have a long history of effectiveness. Alcoholics Anonymous‘  ninth step, ‘making amends,’ provides an example. For young people, actively making amends rather than passively enduring punishment is likely to promote positive feelings, rather than resentment and alienation, toward school, the adults who work there, and the community.”

For more information on this approach, including its implementation and concrete benefits, request a free copy from the Drug Policy Alliance, Telephone (415 921 4987), fax (415 921 1912), or e-mail (


This page is a summary of Skager, Rodney. Beyond Zero Tolerance: A Reality-based Approach to Drug Education and Student Assistance. San Francisco, CA: Drug Policy Alliance, 2005, and provides information to stimulate discussion. This summary has not been endorsed by either Dr. Skager or the Drug Policy Alliance, with which this website has no connection and with whose views it does not necessarily agree.