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Iatrogenic Effects of Alcohol and Drug Prevention Programs

Chudley E. Werch, Deborah M. Owen

Objective: Understanding prevention program risks and the contextual factors associated with negative program outcomes is critical to assisting the development of public policy that is aimed at avoiding future prevention-related harm while maximizing prevention success. The purpose of this review was to systematically analyze published studies evaluating substance use prevention programs, to determine whether iatrogenic effects have occurred, and if so, what types of harmful effects resulted and under what circumstances. Method: A search of electronic bibliographic databases in allied health, education, medicine, psychology and general literature was conducted, spanning the years from 1980 to the present. Results: Evidence of negative program effects was found in 17 evaluation studies for which 43 negative outcomes were documented. The most common type of negative outcome resulting from prevention programs was behavioral effects consisting primarily of increases in consumption, especially alcohol use. Drug prevention programs resulted in greater increases in alcohol use, cigarette use, marijuana use and multiple drug use than did alcohol prevention programs. Negative program outcomes appear to exist as three possible scenarios, described in this article. Conclusions: Researchers, publishers and practitioners should pay special attention to measuring, monitoring and reporting negative outcomes of prevention programs in the future, so that we might learn more about which program elements interact with which contextual factors to cause harm to which groups of youth. (J. Stud. Alcohol 63: 581-590, 2002)