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Policy Advocacy: How can we effectively advocate for prevention in the community?

Prevention professionals are often the “voice of prevention” for a community. As experts in prevention, they can improve understanding among the public and decision-makers about the type of policies and programming that can make a difference in preventing substance use and other problem behaviors. Advocacy has played an important role in such efforts as implementing smoking prevention policies which has led to the lowest levels of smoking in modern history. Let’s start with policies, regulations, and laws?

So what is advocacy all about?

Advocacy involves efforts to influence public perceptions, policy decisions and funding determinations relating to prevention and its goals. Advocacy is an important driver for the passage, implementation and enforcement of policy interventions. What are policy interventions? Policy interventions are designed to change the context in which people make decisions about behaviors. These include the physical environment such as limiting access to and availability of alcohol, tobacco and other substances through zoning laws that restrict the number of alcohol, tobacco, and where relevant, marijuana outlets within an area, enforcing laws and regulations regarding the age limits on purchasing these substances and raising the taxes on them. It also includes the social environment, by reinforcing non-use norms and attitudes such as banning use of tobacco in business establishments, restaurants, bars and other public places.

Advocacy provides the essential infrastructure that leads to policy change. Prevention professionals engaged in advocacy develop plans that include media campaigns, public speaking, and community engagement that aim to influence decisions within political, economic, and social systems and institutions. Advocacy mostly involves educating policy makers and their constituents about the need for, and value of, particular policies related to prevention. Advocacy skills and actions include policy analysis, persuasive communication with policy makers, community organizing, and strategic use of media to influence public perception and advance policy change.

What are some of the evidence-based policies you might want to pursue?

While policies can address all kinds of issues in regard to prevention, some of the following are examples of evidence-based policies that have been shown to be effective:

  • Minimum purchase age laws set a minimum legal age for purchasing and using substances. In the U.S., for example, a person must be 21 years old in order to buy alcohol and 18 to buy tobacco. Research has shown that setting minimum purchase and use ages helps to prevent or reduce substance use.

  • Raising the price of alcohol and tobacco has also been effective--when the price goes up, use goes down.

  • Responsible beverage service training is designed to help businesses who sell and serve alcohol or tobacco to follow the laws and reduce the likelihood of selling to minors or to intoxicated customers.

  • Since exposure to advertising has been shown to contribute to early onset of substance use and may also increase consumption, restrictions on advertising and promotion of tobacco and alcohol products have been passed especially those that tend to attract youth. Such policy efforts have also been applied more recently to the Juul e-cigarettes advertising and packaging which had targeted youth.

In addition to these evidence-based policies, you may be advocating for a different type of initiative. Rather than specific actions suggested above, you would be advocating for a comprehensive approach, which might involve school and community-wide efforts. You would likely be proposing specific manualized curricula and other evidence-based interventions, which would require funding and perhaps regulations for implementation. Such an effort would involve a policy campaign.

What is involved in a policy advocacy campaign?

A policy advocacy campaign involves some primary steps that can guide your effort. You start with the development of a policy action statement that summarizes the basic components of your campaign:

• States the problem

• Describes the policy that will address the problem

• Identifies those who can put the policy in place

• Establishes the evidence of effectiveness of the policy

• Explains how the community will benefit from the policy

During the process, you will build on this succinct statement to develop policy language and a case statement that will provide stakeholders with knowledge of what your campaign is intending to achieve, why, and how . The case statement would be tailored for specific audiences, including policy makers, enforcement agencies, community members, and allied organizations. It is usually a one-page document that pulls together the important information in order to “make the case” for why the proposed policy should be passed. In addition to stakeholders, you will want to share your case statement to engage policy implementers and enforcers in your community and get them onboard. These may involve agencies outside of yours so they need to know how it will affect them, their objectives, and their work.

Media advocacy is the strategic use of various media outlets to build support for a policy before enactment, and to increase public awareness of policy after enactment. Unlike other uses of the media, media advocacy is targeted to move a policy forward by creating a public discussion about the problem being addressed and the need for a specific policy solution. However, to be effective, these media campaigns should utilize evidence-based strategies that are based on proven theories of behavior change such as theories on persuasion.

Depending on your intended audience, you may use traditional media outlets like newspapers, radio or television, or social media such as twitter, facebook, texting and other social media outlets. The key is to be strategic and identify which media outlets are most likely to reach the policy decision-maker or other base of support you need in order for the policy goal to move forward.

Community mobilizing is also used to engage all sectors of the population in a community-wide effort to address a health, social, or environmental issue. You will want to build support for the policy at many levels of the community by identifying influential people who can engage others. You will want to formalize this group and give it a name. Using the united power of this group will demonstrate support for your effort.

And to demonstrate the impact of the policy change to the community and decision-makers, an on-going monitoring and evaluation process should be implemented that actually begins when you start documenting all of the activities and people involved with the very first step of the campaign. You will use the results to strengthen your efforts and keep your supporters informed of your progress.

What kind of policy advocacy campaign would you like to undertake?

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