The behavioral economics of young adult substance abuse


Alcohol and drug use peaks during young adulthood and can interfere with critical developmental tasks and set the stage for chronic substance misuse and associated social, educational, and health-related outcomes. There is a need for novel, theory-based approaches to guide substance abuse prevention efforts during this critical developmental period. This paper discusses the particular relevance of behavioral economic theory to young adult alcohol and drug misuse, and reviews of available literature on prevention and intervention strategies that are consistent with behavioral economic theory. Behavioral economic theory predicts that decisions to use drugs and alcohol are related to the relative availability and price of both alcohol and substance-free alternative activities, and the extent to which reinforcement from delayed substance-free outcomes is devalued relative to the immediate reinforcement associated with drugs. Behavioral economic measures of motivation for substance use are based on relative levels of behavioral and economic resource allocation towards drug versus alternatives, and have been shown to predict change in substance use over time. Policy and individual level prevention approaches that are consistent with behavioral economic theory are discussed, including brief interventions that increase future orientation and engagement in rewarding alternatives to substance use. Prevention approaches that increase engagement in constructive future-oriented activities among young adults (e.g., educational/vocational success) have the potential to reduce future health disparities associated with both substance abuse and poor educational/vocational outcomes.

Publication Title

Preventive Medicine