Truth: The Anti-Drug Ad Campaign

Truth: The Anti-Drug Ad Campaign
Posted by FoM on September 19, 1999 at 16:11:25 PT
By Maia Szalavitz 
Source: Feed Magazine
As Part of President Clinton's $1 billion anti-drug campaign, a new round of ads has recently appeared in major newspapers. Bearing the tagline "Truth: The Anti-Drug," the ads present statistics based on skimpy science, and pass them off as unassailable fact. 
The simple strategy of "talking to your kids about drugs" is relentlessly endorsed, as it has been throughout the introduction of the five-year campaign. While communication between parents and children is not exactly a bad idea, too few commentators have looked skeptically at this proposed cure. Admittedly, surveys do find that children whose parents talk to them about drugs take less drugs, but that's not the whole story. The ads ignore the fact that parents who don't talk to their kids are more likely to be abusive, neglectful, addicted, and/or alcoholic -- that is, those most likely to have kids who use drugs in the first place. Most of the time, the difference between kids who take drugs and those who don't is not the anti-drug talk, but the larger environment in which the child is raised. Like much drug prevention "research," this recent barrage of statistics implies that correlation equals causation. And notably, the causes singled out by the government are conspicuously those which can be remedied without new spending: failure to talk, lack of will power, and so on. In the same "talk to your kids" ad, another "fact" put forth is that kids who start using drugs at a younger age are more likely to become addicted. True enough, but kids who start earlier are also more likely to have serious social and psychological problems than those who start later. The same goes for the vaunted "gateway" theory that marijuana leads to harder drugs, an hypothesis recently debunked by the Institute of Medicine, but still promoted by preventionists. Yes, people who try pot are more likely to try other drugs, but most people who try pot don't try other substances. Furthermore, the minority of pot users who do move on to harder drugs have overwhelmingly suffered from some previous difficulty or simply wanted to try the whole spectrum from the get-go.The speciousness of these ads goes even further. Proponents of the new facts-of-life drug chat either offer skewed information or vague pronouncements as to the proper content of the pow-wow. In fact, the Anti-Drug campaign materials imply that it doesn't much matter what exactly you say to your kids: "What's important is that your kids know that you don't want them to use drugs." But this assertion makes little sense: if it were true, wouldn't all anti-drug messages be equally effective? The fact that the message comes from parents is important, but that doesn't mean any message will do. Indeed, research from the '70s found that some anti-drug education material actually increased drug use by increasing kids' curiosity. And don't overlook the generation of parents which the ads seek to advise; at least half the boomers took drugs, and according to the government's own surveys over 95% suffered no long term problems as a result.The picture painted here is bizarre. We're telling people who used drugs largely without drastic consequences to exaggerate the risks to their kids, use phony facts, and either lie about or gloss over their own experiences. The truth is that drug use is a difficult issue about which America is extremely hypocritical. Until we get realistic about the relative dangers of alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs and start treating addiction as the health problem that it is, prevention campaigns are doomed to fail. Unless we are willing to deal with the underlying causes of addiction -- things like social deprivation, mental illness, and child abuse -- the people who have real drug problems will continue to be ignored or imprisoned. Truth can be the "anti-drug," but only if it's actually true.Maia Szalavitz is a journalist who has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Newsday, The Village Voice, and other publications. Pubdate: September 14, 1999Two More Feed Magazine Articles:The Return Of Reefer Madness - 8/13/99 Hemp is Not a Liberal Issue - 8/13/99
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