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Policy Talk: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure

By: Seher Shafiq, Parent Action on Drugs

This blog post is part of a series on the topic of developing health public policy written by HC Link and our partner organizations. If you would like to contribute to this series, please contact This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

The Canadian Centre on Substance Abuse recently released a free online learning module to help better understand the Portfolio of Canadian Standards for Youth Substance Abuse Prevention — a resource that guides teams on how they can improve their prevention work in the area of substance abuse.

I had the opportunity to go through the online learning module, and found it concise, informative, evidence-based, and interactive.

The module provides tools to help professionals in various sectors prevent youth substance abuse. It encourages the user to recognize that regardless of what sector they are working in, the work we all do as community service providers plays a role in substance abuse prevention. The module recognizes the importance of setting a strong foundation in the “youth years”.

The module also explains risk factors that youth are exposed to when growing up (ex. Conflict with the law, relationship issues, mental illness, etc.), as well as protective factors, noting the importance of minimizing the former and promoting the latter. CCSA also notes that substance abuse prevention does both of these things.

I have to admit, the discussion about risk and protective factors reminded me of Parent Action on Drugs’ Strengthening Families for Parents and Youth program, which is an evidence-based, preventative program that promotes youth resiliency.

What interested me the most in the module was the data on costs associated with substance abuse. In 2006, Canada spent almost $40 billion on substance abuse. These costs were often associated with healthcare, law enforcement, and the court system. I also found it interesting that 30% of charges in violent crimes are associated with alcohol abuse use.

However, the most surprising data for me was that for every dollar spent on substance use prevention, the government saves $15-$18 dollars. This data should be eye-opening for policymakers. Two years ago, I did a project for the MaRS Centre for Impact Investing and similarly found that reducing recidivism rates (i.e. people going back into jail after they’ve been released) through promoting preventative interventions like mental health counselling, affordable housing, and employment skills workshops can also produce similar cost savings for the government.

I can’t help but think of the billions of dollars the government could save if it prioritized prevention initiatives. Policymakers need to recognize that prevention initiatives work and show results – not just in dollar terms, but also through the positive impact on society.

As the saying goes “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

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