What is Harm Reduction?


“Harm Reduction” is a public health approach aimed at reducing harm related to substance use, such as drugs and alcohol. 

Some examples of Harm Reduction:

  • Seat belts, air bags and speed limits  
  • Sunscreen  
  • Helmets and protective head-gear  
  • Life jackets when swimming  
  • Hand-washing and hand sanitizer  
  • Traffic lights and cross walks  
  • Guard rails  
  • Condoms  
  • Vaccines

Harm Reduction aims to lessen the negative impact of drug and alcohol use on individuals and communities. It is a social justice movement based on a belief in, and respect for, the rights of people with substance-use disorders. 

Some examples of substance-related Harm Reduction interventions:

  • No Smoking policies and by-laws  
  • Smoking Cessation aids (nicotine patches and gum, prescriptions etc)  
  • Electronic cigarettes (vapes)  
  • Opioid assisted therapy programs and other medication-assisted treatments  
  • Needle Exchange programs 

Principles of Harm Reduction

  • Being Aware – substance use is in your community, even if you don’t see it  
  • Keeping the Focus on Harms – needle reuse, needle sharing and lack of sterile equipment are prime examples of the harm substance users face  
  • Recognizing Human Rights – people who use substances have the same human rights as everyone else, but those rights are often overlooked or dismissed  
  • Providing Non-Judgmental and Non-Coercive Services – offering safe, open-minded services like Methadone/Suboxone clinics and rehab centres  
  • Involving and Empowering Substance Users – listening to and understanding those who use substances, and valuing their contribution, input and knowledge  
  • Recognizing the Realities – Poverty, classism, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination and other social inequalities affect both peoples’ vulnerability to, and capacity for effectively dealing with, substance use-related harm

Why Harm Reduction?

High rates of blood-borne infections such as HIV and Hep C are transmitted through injection substance use. Bacteria can live in equipment and be transmitted through shared use. 

Harm Reduction practices help prevent:

  • Physical health issues – substance use can cause chronic conditions such as cirrhosis, cellulitis, endocarditis and soft tissue damage such as abscesses and infected injection sites  
  • Sexual risks – impaired judgement can lead to unsafe sexual practices and result in infection  
  • Unemployment – when harm reduction practices are applied, individuals with substance-use disorders are better supported to find and maintain jobs  
  • Incarceration and engagement in criminal activity – when injection equipment is not readily available, individuals with substance-use disorders can resort to illicit and unsafe activity such as stealing and prostitution, which can result in arrests, monetary fines and prison sentences  
  • Overdose, injuries and death – using unsafe equipment can result in life-threatening injuries and death from infection or overdose  
  • Stigma and shame – individuals with substance-use disorders may make better decisions and form safer habits when they feel safe and respected  
  • Costs to the health care system – when sterile equipment is used, individuals are less likely to need an emergency room or hospital visit, which means less tax dollars are spent 

What are the benefits of Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction has many benefits for people who use substances and their families, friends, and community.

Harm Reduction services can:

  • Connect clients to support programs and social services  
  • Create awareness of the stigma surrounding substance use, poverty and mental illness  
  • Provide access to physical and mental health services through a Support Coordinator  
  • Support healthier habits and improve the mindset of individuals with substance-use disorders through programs and peer groups  
  • Prevent the transmission of Sexually Transmitted and Blood-Borne Infections (STBBIs) by providing information related to safer sex and safer injection practices 

To find a list of Harm Reduction supplies NHCS offers, check out the Needle Distribution and Disposal page.