October is a big month for the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy and its “drug czar,” Director R. Gil Kerlikowske. For the second year, the agency is hosting its National Substance Abuse Prevention Month to highlight the role substance abuse prevention plays in promoting safe and healthy communities.




R. Gil Kerlikowske

Known as the “drug czar,” R. Gil Kerlikowske directs the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. The agency is hosting its second-annual National Substance Abuse Prevention Month throughout October and on Oct. 18 hosts “Above The Influence Day,” which aims at youth drug prevention. Photo by ONDCP



Today, ONDCP will join more than 200 communities nationwide for “Above the Influence Day,” a media effort that includes youth-led activities promoting prevention of drugs, alcohol and other risky behaviors. Kerlikowske and the agency’s three deputy directors will host discussion forums in four communities around the country.

In a conversation with Public Health Newswire, Kerlikowske talked about both initiatives, how Facebook and Twitter bring the agency closer to teens and his goal for a 15 percent decline in drug use by 2015.

Q: 2011 introduced the first “National Substance Abuse Prevention Month,” which observed throughout October how substance abuse prevention promotes safe and healthy communities. What activities did the Office of National Drug Control Policy plan for last year and what goals did it hope to achieve?

Prevention is the most cost-effective way to address substance abuse. Although there are many dedicated individuals and organizations working on prevention efforts — whether it’s education, investing in opportunities for kids or supporting evidence-based programs such as Screening Brief Intervention and Referral to Treatment, we recognized the need to unite, celebrate and raise awareness. The first National Substance Abuse Prevention Month in 2011 was an opportunity to unite those stakeholders, promote and support prevention, and work together to raise the profile of prevention in our society.

Q: Have your outreach strategies changed for year two?

National Substance Abuse Prevention Month has been greatly expanded this year. We have identified even more stakeholders to actively promote the importance of prevention. Additionally, this year we have planned a high-profile anchor event, the first ever national “Above the Influence Day,” a national discussion for youth centered on the topic of prevention and the role it plays in their lives.

The “Above the Influence” campaign has been reaching teens for more than six years through television, print, radio and online media. Its efforts in local communities connect directly with teens and local youth-serving organizations to deliver messages, activities and support to help the nation’s youth stay “above the influence” of drugs, alcohol and risky behavior. Multiple scientific findings indicate that teens who have increased exposure to and engagement with the “Above the Influence” campaign have stronger anti-drug beliefs than teens with low exposure to the campaign.

[Today], 85 communities across the country will participate in “Above the Influence Day,” providing opportunities for youth to discuss the influences they face at home, school and in the community. The flagship event will take place with local youth at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

We are also participating in Twitter chats, publishing guest blog posts from our partners across the country and joining prevention-focused events during the month. To read more about 2012 National Substance Abuse Prevention Month, visit our website.

Q: Today is the first-ever “Above the Influence Day.” Tell us about this observance and the events that are being planned.

National “Above the Influence Day” is a national discussion for youth centered on the topic of prevention and the role it plays in their lives.

In September, more than 500 community organizations took part in two training webinars, and nearly 200 groups stated their intention to hold at least one ATI activity or event in October. These activities include “Tag It,” “Be It” and “Express It,” which encourage youth engagement and discussion about how they manage the influences in their daily lives.

[Today], ONDCP’s three deputy directors will be at local events in Maryland, Nevada and West Virginia, joining youth and community leaders to discuss how teens in those communities live “above the influence.” I will join a group of students in Washington, D.C., for a panel discussion, and the four events will be connected via video conference.

For more information and to download ATI materials — including posters, the recent training webinars and the “Above the Influence” Activities Toolkit — please visit our website.

Q: ONDCP has been very active with social media and Web communications. The “Above the Influence Facebook” page has over 1.7 million “likes,” and your agency recently developed online courses for opioid education. Has this growing online presence helped your agency reach a wider audience?

The use of social media allows us to broaden our audience and engage them on a more personal level.  The most powerful component of the “Above the Influence” Facebook page is that it provides a vehicle for youth to have ongoing discussions about the different pressures they face related to drugs, alcohol and other negative influences and to gain support from other youth around the country.

In addition to Facebook, ONDCP engages youth with Twitter on a daily basis with two accounts: @ONDCP now reaches 14,000 followers, and ONDCP recently launched @ONDCPespanol to reach Spanish speakers.

In addition to these activities, you mentioned newly developed online courses for prescribers of opioid analgesics, which were created jointly with Medscape and the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the Department of Health and Human Services. These new training courses, which include video vignettes modeling doctor patient conversations on the safe and effective use of opioid pain medications, were created to help physicians, medical interns and residents, and other clinicians understand and address the complex problem of prescription drug abuse and ultimately help prevent it. They can be taken for Continuing Medical Education credit at this link for safe prescribing for pain CME/CE and managing pain patients who abuse Rx drugs CME/CE.

Q: According to your website, ONDCP aims for a 15 percent drop in U.S. drug use by 2015. How close are we to reaching that goal?

We have reason to be optimistic about achieving a 15 percent reduction in U.S. drug use by 2015. New data was recently released from the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, the largest drug use survey in the nation, and we saw decreases in rates of prescription drug abuse. In 2011, there was a significant decline in the number of Americans 12 and older that had used a prescription drug non-medically in the month prior to their interview (past month or current use). The decline was from 6.957 million to 6.119 million, or 12 percent. We have also seen a 12 percent reduction in self-reported drugged driving since 2009.

In addition, the overall rate of drug use in America has fallen over the past three decades, reminding us that it is possible to achieve substantial progress in reducing drug use. The rate of overall drug use in the United States has declined by roughly 30 percent since 1979. More recently, there has been a nearly 40 percent reduction in the number of current cocaine users, and the number of current meth users has dropped by half. To build on this progress and support the public health approach to drug control outlined in the Strategy, the Obama administration has committed more than $10 billion for drug education programs and support for expanding access to drug treatment for people suffering from substance use disorders in fiscal year 2012.

Q: The campaign’s youth tracking survey shows that the more teens are exposed to the “Above the Influence” campaign, and the more interaction they have with the brand— the stronger their anti-drug beliefs compared with those who did not engage. What new challenges to teen drug prevention does your agency face?

As you state, results from our Youth Tracking Survey demonstrate a strong association between exposure to the campaign and strengthened anti-drug beliefs.

One important new challenge to teens is ensuring education and awareness about new emerging drugs. For example synthetic drugs such as Spice, K2 and ‘bath salts’ are a serious threat to the health and safety of young people and often are marketed as legal substances.

In February, ONDCP and The Partnership at Drugfree.org introduced a toolkit for parents and adult influencers housing the tools they need to talk with their teens about this emerging threat and recognize the warning signs of use. It is available at The Partnership at Drugfree.org website and is part of a “Parents360” community education program funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, Bureau of Justice Assistance.