Review Finds Anti-Drug Campaign Works on Parents (Sort Of) But Not Kids -- Findings Contradict Drug Czar's Rosy Views 1/23/04

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Just a little more than a month ago, John Walters, head of the White House Office on National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP, the drug czar's office -- http://www.whitehousedrugpolicy.gov) was loudly boasting that his $150 million a year youth anti-drug ad campaign was responsible for reducing marijuana use among kids. Based on the most recent figures from Monitoring the Future (http://www.monitoringthefuture.org), one of three widely used measures for tracking drug use levels, Walters proclaimed the ad campaign at least partially responsible for an 11% decrease in marijuana use among teens canvassed in the survey. (The numbers were 19.4% in 2001 and 17.3% in 2003, an actual difference of 2.1 percentage points. But an 11% decrease sounds more impressive.)

Monitoring the Future lead investigator Lloyd Johnston guardedly seconded that opinion, as did Dr. Glen Hansen, acting director of the National Institutes on Drug Abuse (http://www.nida.nih.gov). But a study commissioned by NIDA and released Monday has come up with startlingly different results.

Here are what Johnston, Walters, and Hansen said last month:

  • Johnston: "It is quite possible that the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign by the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which communicates the dangers of marijuana use, has had its intended effect. We have definitely seen a change in that direction." -- Monitoring the Future press release, December 19.
  • Walters: "Teen drug use has reached a level that we haven't seen in nearly a decade. This survey shows that when we push back against the drug problem, it gets smaller. Fewer teens are using drugs because of the deliberate and serious messages they have received about the dangers of drugs from their parents, leaders, and prevention efforts like our National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign." -- ONDCP press release, December 19.
  • Hanson: "A message is getting out there." -- ONDCP press release, December 19.
Neither Monitoring the Future nor ONDCP returned DRCNet's calls for comment this week, nor has ONDCP issued any press releases on the findings released this week.

The four-year, NIDA-commissioned study of the ad campaign by the University of Pennsylvania's Walter Annenberg School of Communications and the research group Westat had to say this week:

Effects on youth: "There is little evidence of direct favorable Campaign effects on youth, either for the Marijuana Initiative or the Campaign as a whole. The trend data in marijuana use is not favorable [although different measures, such as Monitoring the Future, show different results]. In any case, youth who were exposed to more Campaign messages were no more likely to hold favorable beliefs or intentions about marijuana than are youth less exposed to those messages, both during the Marijuana Initiative period and over the course of the Campaign."

Effects on parents: "Overall, there is some evidence of favorable Campaign effects on four out of five parent belief and behavior outcome measures, including talking with children about drugs, doing fun activities with children, and beliefs about monitoring children. The evidence for the Campaign's effects on monitoring behavior was much weaker. The lack of influence on monitoring is a concern because... it is the parent behavior most associated with youth non-use of marijuana. In addition, there is no evidence for favorable indirect effects on youth behavior or beliefs as a result of parent exposure to the Campaign."

The NIDA-commissioned study released this week will be the last independent audit of the anti-drug media campaign. Following similar previous analyses of the campaign's lack of success, ONDCP maneuvered to end funding for such independent evaluations. Instead, the campaign will be evaluated by campaign co-conspirators, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America.

"This independent evaluation confirms what has been obvious for some time: The government's anti-marijuana ads are a complete failure and a staggering waste of taxpayer money," said Steve Fox, director of government relations for the Marijuana Policy Project (http://www.mpp.org) in a Monday press release. "Hundreds of millions have been spent on these ads already, and Congress may soon authorize over $1 billion for the campaign over the next five years. We urge Congress to pull the plug on this propaganda," Fox said. "At the very least, Congress must demand reinstatement of the independent evaluations. Having the Partnership for a Drug-Free America evaluate its own ad campaign is like having Halliburton audit its own federal contracts."

"This study just confirms that the campaign isn't working," concurred Paul Armentano of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (http://www.norml.org). "The only independent scientific evaluation of the campaign shows no impact on those kids who have seen more ads than others, and in some cases, those kids who have seen more ads actually show a more pro-drug attitude than those who haven't. Not only does the campaign not work, it is sometimes even counterproductive," he said.

Armentano also had some criticism of Monitoring the Future's Johnston. "Johnston was not looking specifically at the ads' impact; he simply noted the downturn in use and attributed it to the ad campaign. But he didn't ask if the people he polled who reported lower use were actually influenced by the ads or had even seen them. That is not scientific," Armentano said.

As for action from Congress, Armentano wasn't optimistic. "If we had reason to believe that Congress would base its decision on appropriating funds for the campaign on the results of scientific evaluations, I would be optimistic," he said. "But Washington is completely uninterested in whether it actually works; instead, it's full speed ahead." Still, Armentano added, the anti-drug ad campaign had already seen its funding slashed from $200 million a year to $150 million a year after earlier doubts were raised. "It's not a slam dunk for the drug czar, but I've been to these appropriation hearings and I've seen Walters get up and say 'we're getting dramatically positive results, the ads are working,' and Congress says 'sounds like you're doing a great job.' They didn't question him."

The anti-drug ad campaign has been widely criticized, ridiculed, and even parodied, as well as repeatedly being found ineffective. But, in a sign of corporate collusion with conservative prohibitionists, CBS has pronounced the ads non-controversial and will once again run them during the upcoming Superbowl. CBS has denied air time for paid commercials from organizations including People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and MoveOn, the anti-Bush grassroots organization, on the grounds that they are advocacy ads. But the drug czar's propaganda is okay.

The report, "Evaluation of the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, 2003 Report of Findings," is available at http://www.mpp.org/pdf/Westat0104.pdf online.

-- END --
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Issue #321, 1/23/04 Ron Crickenberger Dead at 48 -- As Libertarian Party National Political Director Made Drug Policy Key Issue | Death, Madness, Mayhem! Brit Tabloids in Fits Over Pot | Review Finds Anti-Drug Campaign Works on Parents (Sort Of) But Not Kids -- Findings Contradict Drug Czar's Rosy Views | Minnesota Sentencing Commission Report Says State Could Save $30 Million Per Year With Treatment Not Prison | Newsbrief: European Union Envoy Criticizes Colombia Coca Fumigation | Newsbrief: Peruvian Coca Growers Prepare to Gather, Government Gets Nervous | Newsbrief: Bush Proposes More Money for School Drug Testing | Newsbrief: This Week's Corrupt Cops Story | Newsbrief: Kentucky Governor Unveils New Drug Offender Plan -- Less Prison, More Treatment | This Week in History | DRCNet Temporarily Suspending Our Web-Based Write-to-Congress Service Due to Funding Shortfalls -- Your Help Can Bring It Back -- Keep Contacting Congress in the Meantime | The Reformer's Calendar
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