What causes drug abuse among teen-agers? Peer pressure, many will say. But if peers are so important to adolescents, couldn't they be just as powerful a preventative force?
That's the premise of a rapidly growing Illinois drug prevention program, Operation Snowball. Run by teens for teens, it is a network of grass-roots community prevention programs.
A group of Northwest Illinois teen-agers came up with the concept in 1977 and began the first group in Rockford. The title they chose was prophetic: The program has snowballed throughout the state. There are now 29 groups accredited by the Illinois Alcoholism and Drug Dependence Association (IADDA).
The Illinois Legislature gave Operation Snowball a special commendation last October, and Gov. James R. Thompson proclaimed Dec. 5 Operation Snowball Day.
The program is an outgrowth of the Illinois Teen Institute (ITI), a volunteer agency founded in 1975 to establish a ''community of caring'' among Illinois youth. It brings some 250 of the state's teen-agers together in an annual 51/2 -day camp retreat.
The teens attending ITI represent a cross section of Illinois youth, so some have a history of drug use. All must be willing to serve as post-institute resources on drug abuse. Operation Snowball began as an effort to provide weekend mini-institutes to Illinois communities. The hope is that one teen will go, and then encourage another to go, and that the process will snowball.
''Operation Snowball believes that youth, if given responsibility and support , can significantly influence the lives of other youth in a positive and life-changing manner,'' says one of the program's co-founders, Dan Voll. Shell Oil Company recognizes teen leadership by awarding more than $200,000 annually through its Century Three Leaders scholarship program, and Mr. Voll won the top award in 1979 for his Operation Snowball efforts.
Both ITI and Operation Snowball retreats are based on small discussion groups that encourage teen participants to examine their attitudes, concerns, and wishes. By clarifying their own values, they take a first step toward learning to make sound decisions.
Prevention research ''has shown that the most effective approaches are those that address the most deeply felt needs of youth,'' says Gerrit DenHartog, director of both ITI and IADDA. These include a need to feel good about themselves, their aspirations, how they relate to others, and their role in their communities. Operation Snowball's backers say the weekends produce dramatic changes in teen participants.
''Suddenly that uncommunicative teen is again part of the home,'' says one mother in a typical response. ''They aren't on their little island somewhere, where you can't reach them. They talk positively, expressing themselves eloquently.''
From mini-ITIs, Operation Snowball quickly evolved into support groups. Their activities vary according to local needs and resources, and include weekly ''substance education'' meetings, ''Adopt a Doper'' programs, and recreational outings. Two auxiliary branches are developing - Operation Snowflake for pre-teens and Operation Avalanche for young adults.
Operation Snowball depends on volunteer community efforts. But some chapters still need help from the IADDA, whose federal grant for the program ran out at the end of 1981. Even if communities can pick up all chapter costs, the agency will still need funding for its development and quality control roles. Mr. DenHartog says he thinks the IADDA will get part of a block grant from an Illinois mental health agency.
''We need money, not commendations, and hope the state government puts its money where its mouth is. The question is, how much are we willing to invest in the quality of life of Illinois teen-agers?''
It's also a question of whether society puts resources into prevention or treatment. Historically, only 5 to 10 percent of the money allocated for drug abuse has gone to prevention, though the public supports efforts to keep kids out of trouble in the first place.
Pay now or later? Pointing to the high cost and failure rate of rehabilitation efforts, the people involved with Operation Snowball say it would be a lot cheaper to pay now.