TASK 1: Prioritize Intervening Variables

Intervening variables are factors identified in the literature as being related to substance misuse and abuse, including risk and protective factors, in your community. For example:

  • Adolescents have easy access to alcohol in their parents’ homes
  • Adolescents do not perceive the use of alcohol as potentially harmful
  • Adults in the community host house parties in which alcohol is provided to all attendees regardless of age
  • Local businesses inconsistently implement responsible alcoholic beverage service strategies (e.g., always asking for identification and refusing to sell in absence of proper ID)
  •  A college campus in your community has high levels of social availability of alcohol

Identifying these factors and prioritizing among them is a critical part of the SPF planning process.

While different criteria can be used to prioritize these variables, communities often consider two in particular when making this decision: importance, the extent to which various intervening variables impact the problem in question, and changeability, how easy it may be to change the intervening variable. You may want to select intervening variables that are high in both.

When prioritizing intervening variables, it is also important to look at substance misuse and abuse in a comprehensive way and to consider the potential consequences of addressing one risk or protective factor vs. another. For example, restricting or reducing access to certain substances may cause an increase in consumption of others. For each intervening variable you consider, think about the potential for unintended consequences and ways to anticipate and address these issues.


When examining the data you have collected, ask yourself how important a particular factor is in addressing substance misuse and abuse in your community.

Example: The problem is youth alcohol consumption, and the data show that youth are more likely to obtain alcohol from peers via their parents (social access) than from stores (via fake IDs or targeting stores that are known not to ask for ID). Therefore, social access is “high” in importance, whereas retail access is “low.”

When weighing the importance of intervening variables, consider the following:

  • Does the intervening variable impact other behavioral health issues?

Example: Poor parental monitoring may be a risk factor for not only alcohol misuse and abuse but also such risky behaviors as early sexual activity and prescription drug misuse and abuse. Therefore, focusing on this risk factor may impact more than one issue.

  • Do the intervening variables directly impact the specific developmental stage of those experiencing the problem?

Example: The identified problem is binge drinking among 18–25-year-olds. Therefore, the risk factor of “parental monitoring” is less important than it would be among 12–17-year-olds.


When assessing the changeability of a factor, you may want to consider the following:

  • Whether the community has the capacity—the readiness and resources—to change a particular intervening variable
  • Whether a suitable evidence-based intervention exists
  •  Whether change can be brought about in a reasonable time frame (i.e., changing some intervening variables may take too long to be a practical solution)
  • Whether the changes can be sustained over time

If the community has ample resources and sufficient readiness to address this intervening variable, if a suitable evidence-based intervention exists, and if sustainable change can occur within a reasonable time frame, then the factor would be considered high in changeability. If there are not adequate resources or if the community is not ready to address the intervening variable, the changeability of the factor may be low.

Another factor you may want to consider is time-lapse, or the amount of time between substance misuse and abuse and its consequences. A short time-lapse may make it easier for you to show a relationship between your activities and improved outcomes.

SAPC Planning Tool