Preventing Substance Use Dependence Before Treatment is Necessary

Longitudinal studies provide empirical evidence to inform the development of effective interventions to prevent substance abuse and dependence

The National Institutes of Health reports that 24.6% of people 18 or older engaged in binge drinking in the last month and 7% of the same population was diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder. Perhaps even more startling, alcohol-related causes are the third leading preventable cause of death in the United States. So how can these preventable deaths be stopped? How can the lives of the nearly 17 million Americans each year diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder be improved with effective treatment? Dr. Helene White, Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Rutgers University’s Center of Alcohol Studies, studies the development, causes, consequences, and prevention of substance use including alcohol and illicit drugs as well as the associations of substance use with other problem behaviors.

Using longitudinal data collected from community and at-risk samples, who were followed from childhood or adolescence into adulthood, her studies allow her to look at how individuals change over time thus, leading to successful prevention strategies for the future. Additionally, she develops and evaluates substance use interventions for college students. Driven by the philosophy that “understanding the early risk and protective factors will allow us to better screen young people for interventions,” Dr. White aims to create programs that will prevent the onset of substance abuse. With close collaborations at both Rutgers University and the University of Pittsburgh, Dr. White is positioned to make an impact and integrate her research into interventions nationwide.

Current research includes:

  • Prevention Programs: Dr. White studies different types of substance use prevention programs in order to identify the most effective components and for whom different types of interventions are most effective. This work is valuable for nearly all segments of the population but has special significance for college-age substance users. Heavy drinking and drug use can cause many problems including academic failure, cognitive impairment, and accidents. Therefore, it is critical to intervene to reduce harm.

  • Pittsburgh Youth Study: The data used from the Pittsburgh Youth Study is unique because few longitudinal data sets have annual data collected prospectively from childhood into young adulthood. Additionally, the consistent sampling of a diverse population including people that are white and people of color paired with the many different types of informants used to collect data make the study extensive and thorough. Dr. White’s research therefore aims to use this unique dataset to shed light on risk and protective factors than can be targeted in interventions and preventative strategies for substance use disorders.

  • Marijuana Use: Current studies are focused on the long-term consequences and predictors of marijuana use. Given recent laws allowing the legal use of marijuana in some states and decriminalizing use in other states, this research has become increasingly important to understand the possible health risks of marijuana use.

  • Criminal Offending: In addition to substance use interventions, Dr. White also studies the role of substance use in the persistence of criminal offending. By making sense of the associations between substance and other problem behaviors like violence and criminal activities, she hopes to help decrease criminal offending by developing evidence-based interventions.


As a young child, Dr. Helene White had dreams of becoming a detective. However, after considering the dangerous encounters being a detective might present, she decided to put her enthusiasm for solving challenging problems to use elsewhere.

As a graduate student, she studied city and urban planning thus strengthening her research skills. Upon graduating, she was pursued by the Center of Alcohol Studies at Rutgers where she has since dedicated her career to rigorous research that can impact people beyond the lab.

She laughs recounting her first few years on the job where she would teach courses on substance use and be only a few chapters ahead of her students. Now, as a Distinguished Professor of Sociology at the Rutgers Center of Alcohol Studies with a joint appointment in the Rutgers Department of Sociology, and after over 40 years of work within the field, Dr. White is one of the leaders in her field. She has made extensive contributions, especially with the work she has done examining individual change using longitudinal research.

Dr. White’s research has continually been funded by the National Institutes of Health as well as private foundations. She is co-author of Violence and Serious Theft: Development and Prediction from Childhood to Adulthood and co-editor of Alcohol, Science and Society, Revisited, Society, Culture, and Drinking Patterns, Re-examined, and College Drinking and Drug Use. Her research has appeared in the top journals in substance use, sociology, psychology, and criminology. Dr. White is currently on the editorial boards of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, Journal of Drug Issues, Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, Prevention Science, and Psychology of Addictive Behaviors, and has served on the boards of several other journals.

She has also served as an elected member of the Board for the Society of Prevention Research, on the advisory board of the Raising Healthy Children Study and the Center for Drug Abuse Translation, University of Kentucky, and on the board of Discovery Inc, a substance abuse treatment facility in New Jersey. Dr. White has won several awards including being listed on the Web of Science Highly Cited list, a Top Cited Award from the International Journal on Drug Policy, the Senior Scholar Award from the Alcohol, Drug, and Tobacco Section of the American Sociological Association, a New Jersey Women of Achievement Award, a Public Service Award from the Criminal Justice/Alcoholism Coalition of New Jersey, the Translation Science Award from the Society for Prevention Science, and being selected as a Fellow of the Society for Prevention Research.



Senior Scholar Award, Alcohol, Drug, and Tobacco Section of the American Sociological Association, 2005

New Jersey Woman of Achievement award from the New Jersey State Federation of Women’s Clubs of GFWC (2005)

Top Cited Award, International Journal on Drug Policy (among the top 10 articles cited 2006-2008) (2009)

Translation Science Award, Society for Prevention Research (2013)

Fellow, Society for Prevention Research (2014-present)