What is harm reduction?

(Copyright 2010, by the HAMS Harm Reduction Network)

Harm reduction is about reducing the health, social, and economic harms to individuals, communities, and society of high risk behaviors such as drinking alcohol, using drugs, etc.

Harm Reduction Is Pragmatic
Harm reduction addresses alcohol use and alcohol intoxication with realistic, commonsense strategies that have been proven to work. Harm reduction emphasizes practical solutions that can be implemented in real life over idealistic impossibilities. Harm reduction recognizes that perfectionism is often the enemy of the good. Harm reduction recognizes that people choose to drink alcohol or to become intoxicated because they perceive certain benefits which accompany the risks of drinking alcohol. Harm reduction focuses on minimizing alcohol related harms rather than attempting to eliminate alcohol use or alcohol intoxication altogether. Harm reduction recognizes that it is possible to have a far greater positive impact by getting a large number of people to make small changes than by getting only a few people to make large changes.

Harm Reduction Respects Individuality
Harm reduction recognizes that there are an infinite number of differences between individuals in terms of their personal values systems, their experiences, their environments, and even their physiologies. Harm reduction “meets people where they are at” with their alcohol consumption and recognizes that each individual needs to choose for him or herself what sorts of changes he or she wishes to make in his or her alcohol use–if any. Harm reduction affirms the idea of “different strokes for different folks” and supports any positive change. Harm reduction recognizes that only the individual can decide if his or her best goal is safer drinking, reduced drinking, or quitting altogether. Not only is the individual best qualified, it is an inherent human right of the individual to make this choice for him or herself. Harm reduction is compassionate and humanistic. Harm reduction is nonjudgmental and always respects the rights and choices of the individual.

Harm Reduction Focuses On Risks And Prioritizes Goals
Harm reduction recognizes that some alcohol related risks are worse than others and seeks to help individuals to prioritize risks and find strategies to avoid them. Harm reduction seeks to encourage people to follow goals which are achievable rather than to demand an impossible level of perfection. Harm reduction seeks to help people recognize and prioritize the reduction of the highest risk behaviors first.

Harm Reduction Recognizes That Alcohol Consumption Exists On A Continuum
Harm reduction recognizes that there are a wide range of drinking behaviors which range from severe abuse to total abstinence. Harm reduction acknowledges that some ways of using alcohol are clearly safer than others. Harm reduction recognizes that the distinction between an “alcoholic” and a “non-alcoholic” is a false dichotomy for behaviors which lie on a continuum.

Harm Reduction Is Tolerant And Accepting
Harm reduction recognizes that prohibitionist strategies can often backfire and increase harm rather than reducing it, therefore harm reduction concentrates on reducing or eliminating harms rather than on prohibiting behaviors. Harm reduction recognizes that successful abstinence is a great way to eliminate harm, but that coerced abstinence often backfires and results in worsened behaviors and increased harm. Harm reduction offers realistic options for those who are unable or unwilling to quit alcohol altogether. Harm reduction let’s people forgive themselves and move on with life rather than beat themselves up with guilt and shame.

Harm Reduction Is About Empowerment
Harm reduction recognizes that the individual drinker is the primary agent of positive change. Harm reduction groups seek to empower the individual to improve his or her life and do not seek to empower the group at the expense of the individual. Research shows that people who believe that they are capable of making changes are the most successful at doing so. This is referred to as self-efficacy. Harm reduction empowers people to make changes which they choose for themselves.

Harm Reduction Is Not The Opposite Of Quitting
Harm reduction is supportive of individual choice. Harm reduction recognizes that some people find that their best option is to quit alcohol altogether and harm reduction is 100% supportive of the choice to abstain.

How to Change Your Drinking: a Harm Reduction Guide to Alcohol (2nd edition), is available at amazon.com.