Your tax dollar on drugs

Posted: May 27, 2002 12:00 AM
A new report released by the U.S. Office of National Drug Control Policy verifies what savvy readers already knew: National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign ads -- which cost U.S. taxpayers almost $1 billion over five years -- don't work. What's amazing is that the Drug Czar John P. Walters readily acknowledges this fact. The study showed that the anti- drug ads might actually have increased marijuana use among girls -- although Walters' office believes that bit of data may be inaccurate. Still, Walters agrees with the study's main finding -- the biggie -- that the ads do nothing to reduce teen-age drug use. Life imitates Christopher Buckley's satirical novel, "Thank You for Smoking" (Random House, 1994). Its tobacco lobby anti-hero comes up with an anti-teen smoking campaign to take political heat off his industry. In reality, the campaign is designed to get kids to smoke more, and it works as teens rebel against an authoritarian voice telling them not to smoke. I remember similar ads when I was a kid. There were anti-smoking ads and anti-smoking lectures from teachers and adults in my family (many of whom smoked). When adults asked, I always told them I wouldn't smoke. And I stuck by that line right up until the day I inhaled. (FYI, I wisely quit in my 20s.) Duh. Scolding, nagging and lecturing won't stop a kid from doing drugs. Either a kid won't, or a kid will -- and the determining factors are complex and personal. That's why most anti-drug ads are a waste of money. Walters doesn't quite see it that way. He's decided the ad campaign is sufficiently worthless that he won't ask for more funding to continue it. But he sees hope in ads targeted to help parents keep their kids away from drugs. One problem. The study says: "The evidence does not as yet support an effect of parent exposure on youth behavior." It could be that it doesn't matter if parents talk to their kids and monitor their behavior. Or it could take time for the message to filter through, with the first step being to change parental behavior, and the second step being a consequent change in teen behavior. As Walters spokesman Tom Riley noted, advertising "wouldn't be a trillion-dollar industry if people believed that ads don't make a difference." And since the study was conducted, Walters has pushed a different kind of drug ad, as in the controversial spots that tell kids that drugs are linked to terrorism and crime. "Where do terrorists get their money?" one spot asked. "If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you." "A lot of people hate them," Riley noted, but Walters wanted "to plant a new idea and to generate discussion." And the ads did receive a lot of attention. Still, just as I question whether nagging ads work, I have to question any study on the effectiveness of drug programs that rely on the answers of teen-agers who know what adults want to hear. And what about people lying to themselves? Some 82 percent of a group of parents of teens ages 16 to 18 told researchers they had talked to their kids about drugs in the past six months; yet only 48 percent of kids that age reported the same conversation. Which is one reason I'd be happy to see Congress gut the National Youth Anti-Drug Media campaign budget, and make it lean and mean. Walters deserves a salute for not trying to cover up failure. He could have pushed for a report that proclaimed -- as so many government reports have done before -- that the anti-drug campaign is a smash hit because parents and kids love it. Or that the money was well-spent because 68 percent of teens recalled some of the campaign slogans. I'll add, D.C. pols love to spend money on anti-drug ads. It's like apple pie for them, or a drug. They couldn't have wanted to learn the bad news. They believe they can spend on failed anti-drug campaigns, and their constituents will cheer. It's like an addiction. And no ad campaign will stop them. Only the tough love of vocal voters can do that.