The government's anti-drugs initiative aims at prevention, targeting the young and working with education and health authorities. Lyn Whitfield reports

Rock music blared. Lights flashed across neon-lit stairways. Computer games pinged and banks of videos changed colour as vast logos rolled across them.

And all this was before the audience invited to the launch of the government's anti-drugs strategy was even allowed into the IMAX cinema at London's Trocadero for a live link to the House of Commons.

Thankfully, only a small section of the vast screen was used to show leader of the house Ann Taylor as she outlined the strategy developed by 'drugs czar' Keith Hellawell. Images of MPs more than 100ft high would have been a very bad trip.

Why the Trocadero Centre was chosen to launch Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain never became clear. Presumably, it was judged suitably 'Cool Britannia'.

The first aim of the four-point strategy, developed through submissions from more than 2,000 individuals, is to 'help young people resist drug misuse'.

To do this, it says children as young as five should be taught about drugs and healthy lifestyles.

Teachers' union leader Nigel de Gruchy responded by saying he 'questioned the wisdom of involving such young children in the drugs war' and the NHS Confederation also expressed reservations.

'We are positive about drugs education in schools, but the message must be designed for the appropriate age group, ' says Cathy Hamlyn, associate director of health policy.

The other aims of the white paper are to 'protect communities from drugsrelated anti-social and criminal behaviour', to improve treatment for Britain's 100,000 to 200,000 addicts and 'to stifle the availability of illegal drugs'.

Asked why the white paper did not call for 'zero tolerance' and a 'crack down' on drugs, Mr Hellawell, former chief constable of West Yorkshire police, said that it wasn't realistic: 'It would be pie in the sky to say that we could have a drug-free society.

'We have to recognise that people experiment with drugs and become addicted to drugs.'

This attitude has been generally welcomed.

'The shift towards prevention and treatment, and away from spending all our resources battling 'drugs barons' has to be right, ' says Stephen Thornton, chief executive of the NHS Confederation.

'We welcome the thrust of the white paper, ' says Steve Taylor from the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse.

'The only pity is that they had to launch it before the results of the comprehensive spending review put the pounds, shillings and pence to it.'

Money is the main concern of lobby groups.

Ms Taylor told the Commons that a 'proportion' of the assets seized from 'drugs barons' would be diverted to anti-drug work for the first time.

Seizures have been about£5m a year for the past five years. A resource framework to implement the strategy will be issued later this year.

On the health front, SCODA says many treatment and rehabilitation services are cutting the length of their treatment programmes because of funding problems. It also says that half the services it is in contact with have waiting lists, and most report an increase in demand.

'It is a long time since drugs had a high priority. The priority has gone to other things, such as acute care or waiting lists, ' admits Mr Thornton.

'It will need massive investment to offer treatment on the scale proposed, particularly if courts are going to start diverting people into the NHS for treatment.'

There is evidence that investing in treatment works.

Public health minister Tessa Jowell chose the day of the drug strategy launch to publicise the third bulletin of the National Treatment Outcome Research Study, which reports some very positive findings (see box).

Tony Thake, Department of Health policy lead on drug abuse prevention, says managers should start gathering evidence about what they are doing that works. 'Agencies will not take people out of the criminal justice system and into these programmes unless it can be proved they are working.'

He believes that health promotion work to prevent drug abuse will take longer to develop, and that it will need to be tied in to wider public health agendas.

Tackling Drugs says: 'There is increasing evidence of the links between the health problems of individual drug misusers and public health concerns - notably, mental health problems, alcohol abuse and tobacco use and social exclusion.'

But it does not develop this theme.

This disappoints Mr Taylor, who says:

'The green paper on public health had little to say about drugs, because everyone was waiting for this paper.

'Now this paper says public health is important but does not talk about it. We need to see this circle squared.'

Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain.

The Stationery Office.£6.50. Also on the Internet at 945.htm

A positive outcome

Drug treatment programmes do work, says the National Treatment Outcome Research Study.

The Department of Health-funded study, which is tracking 1,075 drug users involved in 54 programmes over five years, says that in the first year alone the number of clients abstaining from heroin and methadone use more than doubled (see figures above).

'We estimate the savings to society in terms of reduced criminal behaviour and reduced demands to the criminal justice system to be worth more than£5m a year, ' says the bulletin.

'Our estimates suggest that for every£1 spent on drug misuse treatment, there is a return of more than£3 associated with lower levels of crime and reduced demands on the criminal justice system.'

NTORS at One Year: Changes in substance use, health and criminal behaviours one year after intake. Department of Health, PO Box 410, Wetherby, LS23 7LL. Free.