Fear and ignorance among parents are combining to reduce the effectiveness of drug education because agencies fail to involve them, researchers are warning.
A study by the Roehampton Institute in London shows that many parents find it hard to talk to their children about drugs because of the generation gap and their own lack of knowledge. Meanwhile schools and health promoters fail to consult parents sufficiently when drawing up drug education policies.
Four out of five parents felt they were not sufficiently involved in drug prevention schemes. Three-quarters did not know the main message their child's school gave out about drugs, and 67 per cent did not know how the school reacted if a pupil was found with an illegal substance.
The result is many parents, alarmed by the media coverage of tragedies such as that of Leah Betts, who died in 1995 after taking Ecstasy on her 18th birthday, tell their children: "Just Say No". Drug prevention workers say that such a black-and-white message is ineffective, conflicts with school programmes and may alienate children.
And the team warns that some anti-drug drives could be wasting money because they are not evaluating their effectiveness.
The Roehampton report, Drugs Education: a parents' needs study in Kent, comes as the new Labour Government prepares to review its anti-drug strategies and appoint a new "drugs czar" to oversee the fight against substance abuse.
Leader of the House and former education spokeswoman Ann Taylor has been appointed to chair a Cabinet committee on this issue and has already pledged to work with the drug action teams which the last government created to bring together police, health and education authorities and other agencies. The multi-agency approach to drug prevention is still relatively new. But the Roehampton findings suggest one crucial partner - the family - is being left out.
A number of initiatives across the country which involve parents are currently being evaluated by the Home Office's Central Drugs Prevention Unit.
The Roehampton team surveyed 1,000 parents in Kent for the Safer Kent Partnership, which co-ordinates drug education and wants to involve parents more closely.
Inspector Trevor Hall of Kent Police's strategic crime reduction unit said: "We know the 'Say No' message doesn't work. We were also aware that perhaps parents misunderstood what our message was about. We needed to demonstrate whether or not that was right."
The study, thought to be the largest of its kind, analysed parents' attitudes towards drugs, their knowledge, and what they felt they needed to be able to talk to their children and deal with drug-related issues. A second, smaller survey of parents from across the South of England suggested the findings hold true elsewhere.
Dr Roy Evans, who led the survey, said family values and lifestyle were major influences. Parents needed better support if they were to make a difference.
Most parents - 97 per cent - did talk to their children about substance abuse. But discussion was often ad hoc, sparked by a television programme, for example. And parents often became defensive because their children knew more about drugs than they did. "The generation gap underlies everything," said researcher Jane Mallick.
The researchers are looking for a fundamental review of drug education so that teachers, police, health promoters, welfare workers and, crucially, parents puts across similar messages.
Researcher Georgina Stein said teenagers were quick to spot double standards if parents told them to reject illegal drugs, but carried on smoking and drinking alcohol.
Drugs advice needs, page 4