National Prevention Strategy Series: Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy

Apr 24, 2012, 6:54 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

director_ kerlikowske R. Gil Kerlikowske, Director of National Drug Control Policy

The National Prevention and Health Promotion Strategy is about to celebrate its first anniversary. The Strategy offers a comprehensive plan aimed at increasing the number of Americans who are healthy at every stage of life. A cornerstone of the National Prevention Strategy is that it recognizes that good health comes not just from receiving quality medical care, but also from the conditions we face where we live, learn work and play such as clean water and air, safe worksites and healthy foods. The strategy was developed by the National Prevention Council, which is composed of 17 federal agencies including the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Education, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the Office of National Drug Control Policy and others.

As the Strategy is rolled out, NewPublicHealth will be speaking with Cabinet Secretaries, Agency directors and their designees to the Prevention Council about the initiatives being introduced to work with all Americans toward the goal of long and healthy lives.

This week, NewPublicHealth spoke with R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy about their focus on prevention, shortly after the Office released the 2012 National Drug Control Strategy. Listen to the short podcast, and read the full interview below.

>>Follow the full National Prevention Strategy series on

NewPublicHealth:What is the scope of the problem of drug abuse in the United States and who does it affect?

Gil Kerlikowske: Well, we know that it affects everyone. I’ve spent three years in this job and traveled all over the country, actually all over the world. I cannot find anyone who has not been impacted by drugs. A family member, a friend, a spouse, a co-worker, a neighbor. So the scope is significant and the cost is significant; $193 billion is the most recent estimate and that was from a Department of Justice report.

NPH: Thinking about the scope of that problem, why is prevention such a critical goal for the ONDCP?

Gil Kerlikowske: Prevention in my estimation did not get anywhere near enough attention or enough focus and we know that prevention is by far the least expensive of all of the options in dealing with the drug problem, whether it’s a law enforcement or criminal justice part of the system, or even treatment. If you can invest in prevention and keep someone from becoming involved in drugs, you not only make a huge difference in saving money, you make a huge difference in people’s lives.

NPH: What does ONDCP see as some of the most effective strategies in preventing drug abuse?

Gil Kerlikowske: There are so many things that with a certain amount of small investment in both time and money, people’s health can be improved. When we look at our drug addiction problem, we really do look at it through a public health lens.

There are two strategies that we focus on, and both have been subjected to peer-reviewed evaluation. One is the Drug Free Communities Support Program. We fund over 700 very small grants—$125,000 per year—to communities where they have to show a grassroots involvement in talking about and enacting strategies to keep young people from becoming involved in drugs. We know the kids who are in those communities that have been exposed to those interventions actually have a lower rate of drug use. That’s one very positive thing and the program has a great return on investment.

Our other most important prevention strategy is our National Anti-drug Youth Media Campaign. This was the media campaign that some people will remember had a picture of two fried eggs and it would say, “This is your brain on drugs.” What we have done with the help of a lot of experts and a lot of focus groups is to really improve those original ads and also infuse a new, heavy emphasis on social media. That has made a huge difference and now we’ve had three evaluations that showed that young people who’ve been exposed to these ads are more resistant to drug use in the future than kids who haven’t seen them.

NPH: How do you see collaborating across offices and sectors as an important area to help enrich the drug abuse prevention effort?

Gil Kerlikowske: The collaboration is key. We all know that regardless of what taxpayer resources are available at the federal or state or local level, there isn’t going to be enough to do everything that people would like to do and to do everything that we know could work. So we have to figure out smart ways to deal with this problem and one of the smart ways I think is through partnerships and collaboration; whether it’s working with Health and Human Services or the Department of Justice on their drug court initiatives, a whole host of different ways and when you think about it, our office was really designed because there is no one federal drug budget. It cuts across 15 primary federal agencies, but you don’t want them overlapping each other and you don’t want them to be redundant, and you want them to be able to work together and that’s pretty much what we do here.

NPH: Is there anything else you want to highlight about preventing drug use and drug abuse?

Gil Kerlikowske: I think one thing that might be helpful to know is the issues that we’re seeing that are kind of looming and could pose a major problem in the future. The first one that we have been focusing on has been our prescription drug problem in this country. The prescription drugs typically being abused are not coming across the border; they are not manufactured in the back of a gas station—they are coming right out of people’s own medicine cabinets. Abuse of prescription drugs is a serious issue. Another critical issue is drugged driving. We’ve made a lot of improvements in reducing alcohol-impaired driving in this country but we really haven’t focused on the newer problem of drugged driving. The last thing I’d mention is that people need to be aware of these new synthetic, manufactured drugs, such “K2,” “Spice,” and “Bath Salts,” which are causing significant problems when we see the number of calls to emergency departments and poison control centers.

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.