This year’s National Public Health Week theme paid homage to public health’s ROI, or return on investment, emphasizing its proven value in savings of both lives and money. ROI is a chief objective at the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, or ONDCP, where its leadership — including director R. Gil Kerlikowske and deputy director Michael Botticelli — spearhead initiatives promoting the worth of substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery.

The agency’s 2012 National Drug Control Strategy indicates the relationship between public health systems and drug abuse prevention — and ultimately, savings. In a guest blog, the ONDCP directors spoke to Public Health Newswire about the agency’s prevention efforts at community and national levels, including its Drug-Free Communities Support Program, and how breaking “the cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration” curb spending in our health care and criminal justice systems.


R. Gil Kerlikowske

R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. Photo by ONDCP

Factoring in public health costs, crime and lost productivity, data from the U.S. Department of Justice show that illicit drug use cost the U.S. roughly $193 billion in 2007.

Even worse are the human costs. While the public health harm caused by substance misuse and substance use disorders may seem obvious, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that drug overdoses are the second-leading cause of injury death.

But we are not powerless to prevent this needless loss of life — and don’t need to accept the harmful consequences of substance use as inevitable. We know that prevention is the most powerful tool we have to change these statistics, save lives and improve our economy.

We also know that substance-use disorder treatment works to break the cycle of addiction, crime and incarceration. In fact, research has shown that for every $1 spent on treatment — we save $4 in health care costs and $7 in law enforcement and other criminal justice costs.

That’s why in 2012 the federal government spent $10.1 billion on drug prevention and treatment programs, more than twice the amount — $4.4 billion — spent on federal drug-related incarceration operations. Prevention is a return on investment.

One of the prevention programs funded by the Office of National Drug Control Policy, the Drug-Free Communities Support Program, or DFC, empowers communities to be healthy by funding community-based coalitions working with young people to prevent substance use before it ever begins. Each local coalition brings together leaders in public health, law enforcement, education and faith groups to create educational and prevention-based solutions tailor-made for the community.

ONDCP deputy director Michael Botticelli

Michael Botticelli, deputy director at ONDCP. Photo by ONDCP

Over the past 15 years, the DFC program has funded more than 2,000 community coalitions and positively influenced the lives of countless thousands of at-risk youth. Recent data reveal that these coalitions are working: Between the DFC coalitions’ first and most-recent data reports, the prevalence of past 30-day substance use declined significantly across all substances — including alcohol, tobacco and marijuana — in both middle and high schools.

According to the Youth Risk Behavior Survey, or YRBS, prevalence of past 30-day use was significantly lower for DFC high school students as compared to a nationally representative sample of high school students. Differences in prevalence of 30-day use between DFC and YRBS were statistically significant for alcohol in 2003, 2005, 2007 and 2009. Differences in prevalence of 30-day use were also statistically significant for marijuana in 2003, 2005 and 2007.

On a more personal note, this last year, a remarkable young woman overcame a childhood complicated by her parents’ addictive disorders to serve as an intern at ONDCP. As a young adult, she became involved in her local DFC coalition, Lines for Life, and now she serves as the group’s youth coordinator.

Visit the DFC program online to learn more about how national drug policy is empowering communities through the DFC program, and read our blog to learn more about drug policy reform.