Policymakers, health care professionals, employers and community leaders — in Indianapolis and across the state — agree that confronting the opioid epidemic and the state’s unacceptably high rate of tobacco use are top priorities. While Indiana is making significant strides to support those who are battling addiction, there remains much more to be done to stem the tide of the opioid crisis, significantly reduce smoking rates and save lives.

Many are also asking an important question: What if we could avoid the tragic outcomes of addiction altogether? Benjamin Franklin’s famous maxim – “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” – is fitting advice.

The need for prevention is particularly pronounced among young people. We know that substance use often begins in early adolescence, and whether a child experiments with substances during this critical developmental time is a strong indicator of his or her likelihood to become addicted as an adult. The data should sound the alarm for anyone who is invested in the well-being of our children and the future of our state: 18 percent of American high school seniors report having used a prescription drug for a non-medical reason, and nearly 90 percent of adult smokers nationwide start by age 18.

Marion County and its neighbors are not immune from these troubling trends: Among seniors at Central Indiana high schools, 11 percent report smoking cigarettes, 23 percent report using e-cigarettes, 33 percent report drinking alcohol, 20 percent report using marijuana and five percent report misusing prescription drugs in the past 30 days. And while substance use among students peaks in high school, many begin using drugs as early as middle school. Among Central Indiana 8th graders, more than 10 percent report drinking alcohol, and five percent using marijuana in the past 30 days.

Children and adolescents spend the majority of their time in the classroom, making schools ideal partners in the substance use prevention effort. Fortunately, there are a number of prevention programs that have demonstrated long-term impact across a variety of substances, including alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, prescription drugs, heroin and more. These nationally recognized prevention programs equip students with decision-making, emotional self-regulation, communication and social skills that not only help them avoid drugs but also can lead to improved academic outcomes, attendance and classroom behavior, and reductions in bullying and violence.

These impacts often persist long-term, too. For example, several studies of one school-based program, LifeSkills Training, find that students who participated in the program were 28 percent less likely to smoke after a six-year follow-up and 66 percent less likely to use marijuana after a three-year follow-up, relative to similar students who did not participate in the program. Long-term impacts have also been shown for illicit drug use, including use of narcotics like heroin and misuse of prescription drugs. In addition, these studies find effects on behaviors beyond substance use—like a 32 percent drop in delinquency and a 26 percent drop in fighting in a three-month follow-up.

Despite these benefits, and according to a recent survey, only 11 percent of Marion County K-12 schools offer such programs. School leaders need support to identify and implement proven prevention programs that will work best for their students and can be incorporated effectively into the school schedule. Through a new grant initiative called Prevention Matters, the Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation will award Marion County schools that meet eligibility criteria up to $12 million over three years to help close these gaps and deliver powerful prevention programs to students at a critical time in their development.

The urgency of the substance use crisis in Indianapolis and around the state demands that we prioritize tried-and-true solutions that can effectively address this critical public health issue. These programs promise to produce resilient students who avoid substance use and, in turn, safer schools and a brighter future for our city and state. But it will take all of us working together – policy makers, health care professionals, employers, schools, parents and other community leaders – to usher in a new era for Hoosier health. Our children and communities around our state deserve our very best efforts.

Claire Fiddian-Green

President and CEO, Richard M. Fairbanks Foundation

Jim McClelland

Executive Director for Drug Prevention, Treatment, and Enforcement for the State of Indiana