Policy can be broadly defined as “standards for behavior that are formalized to some degree (that is, written) and embodied in rules, regulations, and procedures.”1 In order to work, these standards must reflect the accepted norms and intentions of a particular community. Imagine, for example, trying to regulate smoking in public places 50 years ago, when smoking was not only acceptable but chic. It would have been impossible! Now that the dangers of smoking—particularly exposure to secondhand smoke—are so well-documented, people are ready and willing to limit where and when others light up. So, policy represents a kind of social compact, codifying our collective expectations for the kind of world we want to live in.
Many prevention practitioners don’t take advantage of the policy strategy as aggressively as they might, because they see policy as something that elected officials create. But “regular” people influence policies every day by becoming advocates. Advocates can be instrumental in creating policy change at the organizational, community, and state levels. For example, in Gloucester, Massachusetts, a group of high school students, working with the Gloucester Prevention Network, was instrumental in having cigarette vending machines banned from public places.
There are six major types of policy approaches we use to prevent alcohol and other drug use:
- Economic policies
- Restrictions on access and availability
- Restrictions on location and density
- Restricting use
- Limiting the marketing of alcohol products
Policy can be an effective prevention strategy—as long as the laws and regulations you put in place are consistent with community norms and beliefs about the “rightness” or “wrongness” of the behavior you want to legislate. But before moving on a particular policy, make sure that you understand the problem and are prepared to make changes based on that understanding.