What is Harm Reduction?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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Harm reduction is an approach to public health which recognizes that certain behaviors will always be a part of society, regardless as to their legality, and that therefore it is in the best interests of everyone to reduce the risks of such behaviors, rather than trying to prevent them entirely. Harm reduction is often incorporated into the treatment approach for drug users, but it can also apply to sexuality and a variety of other practices as well. In some regions, harm reduction is viewed critically, because people believe that it promotes such activities, rather than simply accepting their existence.

The fundamental principle upon which harm reduction rests is that humans always have and always will engage in a diverse assortment of behaviors, some of which could be harmful. Drug use is a classic and easily understood example of such behavior. Harm reduction also involves the understanding that such behaviors are often closely bound up in a variety of political and social issues, requiring a multifaceted approach to any plan which is intended to help people who engage in things like prostitution, drug use, and underage sexuality. Furthermore, advocates of harm reduction believe that it is important for people and communities to play a role in their own treatment.


Advocates of harm reduction value quality of life, both for the community in general and for people who engage in specific behaviors. By improving quality of life, harm reduction advocates hope to reduce risks, and to make communities more pleasant to live in. The goal of harm reduction is not to dismiss or ignore the effects of harmful behavior, or to promote it, but rather to provide options for people who want to engage in such behavior, enabling them to make safer choices.

Harm reduction programs offer services which are provided without judgment or coercion, recognizing that it is important to meet people in the middle sometimes in order to achieve a desired goal. For example, a harm reduction program focused on IV drug use might offer treatment and counseling to people who are interested in it, along with classes on how to use needles safely, education programs about treatment options, and a needle exchange for users who wish to continue using. Many such programs also have clinics which offer basic medical care to people who desire it, in an attempt to identify and treat health problems early, thereby benefiting both individuals and the community at large.

One common and well-accepted form of harm reduction is the designated driver programs which are encouraged in most countries around the world. Architects of these programs are well aware that people are going to drink while out on the town, so encouraging the use of a sober driver can help reduce the risks of drunk driving, making the roads safer and more pleasant for everyone. More controversial forms of harm reduction include sexual education programs in schools, needle exchange programs in urban areas, and advocacy programs for prostitutes.


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