ONCDP Media Campaign: Drug Czar's Anti-Drug Ads a Flop, GAO Says

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) has found that the $1.4 billion anti-drug advertising campaign aimed at youth and managed by the Office of National Drug Control Policy (the drug czar's office, ONDCP) doesn’t work. The title of the GAO report, "ONDCP Media Campaign: Contractor's National Evaluation Did Not Find That the Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign Was Effective in Reducing Youth Drug Use, pretty much says it all.

http://stopthedrugwar.org/files/drugstory.jpg
evidently doesn't work...
The GAO report is at least the third to criticize the program in the past three years. In 2003, the White House Office of Management and Budget qualified the program as "non-performing" and lacking any demonstrable results. In 2005, Westat, Inc. and the University of Pennsylvania did a $43 million federally-funded study that again found the campaign didn’t work. That evaluation found that kids and parents remembered the ads and their messages, but that the ads did not change kids' attitudes toward drugs. It also suggested that reported drops in teen drug use came not from the ad campaign but from a range of other factors.

The GAO study released last Friday evaluated Westat's evaluation of the ad campaign and found it credible. "GAO’s review of Westat’s evaluation reports and associated documentation leads to the conclusion that the evaluation provides credible evidence that the campaign was not effective in reducing youth drug use, either during the entire period of the campaign or during the period from 2002 to 2004 when the campaign was redirected and focused on marijuana use," GAO said in its executive summary.

ONDCP has, unsurprisingly, attacked the GAO report. Spokesman Tom Riley told USA Today the report is "irrelevant to us. It's based on ads from 2 ½ years ago, and they were effective, too. Drug use has been going down dramatically. Cutting the program now would imperil its progress."

Drug czar John Walters also complained that Westat wanted proof of an actual link between the ads and figures suggesting lower drug use among teens. "Establishing a causal relationship between exposure and outcomes is something major marketers rarely attempt because it is virtually impossible to do," Walters said in a letter. "This is one reason why the 'Truth' anti-tobacco advertising campaign, acclaimed as a successful initiative in view of the significant declines we've seen in teen smoking, did not claim to prove a causal relationship between campaign exposure and smoking outcomes, reporting instead that the campaign was associated with substantial declines in youth smoking."

Unlike Walters, Congress may want to see some sort of causal relationship between the ad campaign and drug use figures before it funds it for another year. The Bush administration wants another $120 million for fiscal year 2007, but the GAO said that absent a better plan from Walters, funding should be cut. Congress will consider the issue this fall.

Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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