Probing Question: Is 'Just Say No' an effective anti-drug approach?

Tom Fitzgerald
January 23, 2006
decoration on fence “drug free”


Many people remember the famous anti-drug slogan coined by former First Lady, Nancy Reagan: "Just Say No." Critiqued by some for reducing a complex issue to a catch phrase, Reagan's campaign is generally considered to have been unsuccessful, and the phrase "just say no" has become a pop-culture joke.

"Effective resistance strategies go beyond repeating simplistic slogans at kids,'" says Michael Hecht, professor of communication at Penn State. "Instead, researchers in the field realized a couple of decades ago that we needed to give kids a variety of skills to resist peer pressure, to 'say no,' and to make good decisions. We tried to accomplish this through various structured programs."

One of these programs, D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education), became especially popular during the eighties and nineties and is still used by some school systems today. But D.A.R.E. has been widely criticized as ineffective. One reason for this failure, according to many, could be that D.A.R.E uses police officers to deliver anti-drug lessons in schools. As Hecht notes, "there is no evidence that police officers are effective in this role. Rather, it is clear from a large body of research that students are more receptive when their peers are involved with delivering the message."

Even programs that work well under ideal conditions are frequently less effective when adapted to suit implementers' needs or tastes, Hecht says. And some programs don't work at all, even with proper implementation. "That's why the federal government keeps a database of anti-drug programs and their success statistics in an effort to inform the public about which programs could work for their school or community."

One program that has shown positive results is "keepin' it REAL" (an acronym for the program's strategies: "Refuse, Explain, Avoid and Leave"). The four strategies emerged in research conducted by Hecht and associate professor of communication, Michelle Miller-Day, when both taught at Arizona State University in the 1990s.

"'keepin' it REAL' differs from previous programs in that it works from the ground up rather than from the top down," according to Miller-Day. In the program, high school students produced video narratives that show how youth have made good decisions and dealt with offers of drugs in their own lives. These videos are shown to middle school students, who then discuss the content.

By involving kids in making video presentations of the kind of real-life situations they face, Miller-Day says, the social consequences of drug-taking are addressed in a way that makes sense to other kids.

"keepin' it REAL" also takes into account cultural and ethnic differences in the way kids deal with offers of drugs. For example, Hecht and colleagues at Arizona State University designed the program with a version of the curriculum which features Mexican American kids and their culture and a version that is multicultural.

How does Hecht know the program works? "That's the easy part," he says. "The research shows that kids are fairly honest on anonymous surveys. Breathalyzer and saliva test results correlate well with the surveys. And more to the point, kids don't have any more reason to lie to us than to anyone else. The survey data show significant positive effects on drug use and attitudes toward drugs."

Miller-Day and Hecht attribute this success to the fact that their program was "designed by kids, for kids, and through kids." Programs like "keepin' it REAL" recognize that adolescence is complicated, Hecht suggests, and that kids can play a vital role in explaining to their peers how to "say no" to drugs, even in situations that are not simple or easy.

"keepin' it REAL" is now being tested in four schools in Delaware. Next year, fourteen more schools in that state will test the program. Forty-seven schools in Pennsylvania have also lined up to be involved in a Pennsylvania version of "keepin' it REAL" if funding becomes available.

Michael Hecht, Ph.D., is professor of speech communications and crime, law, and justice. He can be reached at Michelle Miller-Day, Ph.D., is assistant professor of communication arts and sciences. She can be reached at

Last Updated January 23, 2006