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How the education sector can respond to the use of alcohol, tobacco and substances

28 June 2018

Substance use most commonly begins in adolescence, with alcohol, tobacco and cannabis being the substances most commonly used by children and young people. Did you know why some children and young people use substances? What are the consequences to their health, school performance and future life? In addition, how the education sector should and can respond to the use of alcohol, tobacco and substances?

UNESCO's publication: Good Policy and Practice in Health Education: Education sector responses to the use of alcohol, tobacco and substances was developed and published in March 2017 through an international consultation process led by UNESCO in partnership with the United Nations Office on Substances and Crime (UNODC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), members of the UN Interagency Task Force on the Prevention and Control of Noncommunicable Diseases. It is now available in French, Spanish and Chinese.

What is the status of substance use among schoolchildren?

Globally, on average, about one in four 13-15 year olds report having used alcohol during the last 12 months – twice as many as used tobacco. Tobacco is often the first substance used by adolescents, with one in four 13-15-year-old students who have ever smoked cigarettes reporting that they first did so before the age of ten. Data on current use of cannabis are available from fewer countries, but it is less common than alcohol and tobacco use overall. The prevalence of ecstasy use by adolescents is below 1% in most countries.

There is an increase in the use of amphetamine-type stimulants and new psychoactive substances, although the prevalence remains relatively low. New psychoactive substances, in pure form or in preparation, not controlled by the United Nations substance conventions, are known in the market by terms such as ‘designer substances’, ‘legal highs’, ‘herbal highs’, ‘bath salts’, ‘research chemicals’ or ‘laboratory reagents’. They present a particular threat because some young people perceive these substances as being safer than other substances because they are or have been legal. They are also easily accessible and often come in branded packaging. In addition, as many as 70–90% of people who inject substances in some countries start doing so before the age of 25.

Why some young people use substances and other do not?

There is no single reason why some children and young people are more likely to engage in substance use – what we can do is to look at all the factors that may influence the behaviours of the individual. The factors that place a young person at risk, or, on the other hand, serve to protect them from substance use, are largely the same as those linked to several other problematic behaviours (e.g. violence, criminal activity, risky sexual behaviour and poor school performance). The overall level of risk or protection in a child’s life is a product of the interaction between the individual’s personal characteristics and their experiences in the various life spheres. For example, weak child-parent attachment at infancy may contribute to early behaviour problems, which can in turn affect school performance and engagement with peers. On the other hand, evidence-based early school prevention programming can improve their ability to interact with teachers and peers, avoid further behavioural problems, and help improve relations with parents.

Why the Education Sector should respond to substance use among children and young people

Use of alcohol, tobacco and substances commonly begins in adolescence. It is associated with a wide range of negative impacts on young people’s mental and physical health as well as on their wellbeing over the short and long term. Linked with a number of negative education-related consequences, including poor school engagement and performance, and school dropout, it has a negative impact on education sector efforts to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education for all and accomplish the new global 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The education sector has therefore a fundamental responsibility to prevent and address substance use among children and young people.

On the other hand, schools have a key role to play in ensuring that children and young people develop the knowledge, attitudes and skills that choosing not to use substances requires, and significant opportunities and means for doing so. Examples are:

  • Through schools, students can be reached both before substance use is initiated, and during the critical years of adolescence.
  • Schools can establish and enforce policies to create an environment that protects young people from exposure to substances and substance use, and that promotes a broad view of healthy living.
  • Schools can provide a sustained, sequential course of substance prevention education to equip students with the knowledge, attitudes and skills that young people need to be able to refuse substances.
  • Schools can offer or link students to alternatives to substance use for satisfying their needs for self-expression, social development, recreation and risk-taking, etc.
  • Teachers and other school personnel can serve as positive adult role models and mentors.
  • Through peer education programmes, schools can develop the potential of positive peer pressure.
  • Through students, schools can educate parents about substances and support their efforts to keep their children substance free.
  • Schools provide a channel to the community to introduce prevention information and strategies and take the lead in advocating policies and services that reduce substance use.
  • School personnel can learn to detect the signs of possible substance use, and intervene early to help students receive treatment and counselling services.
  • Schools provide an efficient and effective way to reach large numbers of the population, including school personnel, families and community members, as well as students.

What are the key principles for education sector responses to substance use?

Examples of good practice from various countries shared during the side event highlighted some of the key principles of effective substance use prevention education, also described in detail in the joint UNESCO-UNODC-WHO publication.

  • Base all responses on scientific evidence
  • Set goals relevant to the prevalence and patterns of substance use in a given context
  • Start early, cover all age groups and target especially the transition periods
  • Focus on strengthening the emotional and social life skills of children and adolescents
  • Enhance their participation through interactive teaching methods

What does the joint publication provide?

The booklet is the result of an international consultation process involving extensive literature reviews and an international experts meeting. Within the framework set by the International Standards on Substance Use Prevention and Health for the World’s Adolescents, this joint publication:

  • Provides the context, rationale and a comprehensive conceptual framework for improved education sector responses to substance use;
  • Presents evidence-based and promising policies and practice, including practical examples from different regions that have been shown to be effective by scientific research;
  • Suggests issues to consider in scaling up and sustaining effective education sector approaches and programmes in responding to substance use.


Download the Good Policy and Practice in Health Education Booklet 10: Education sector responses to the use of alcohol, tobacco and drugs in English, French, Spanish and Chinese.

Learn more about UNESCO’s work in education for health and well-being.