A Drug War Plus...

Every year the federal government comes out with a national drug control strategy, and every year it's greeted with criticism about skewed priorities. This year, according to the head of the National Office of Drug Control Policy, Barry McCaffrey, those priorities are taking a definite turn toward prevention and education. If it's borne out with funding and action, that shift should quiet some critics who have long called for more emphasis on quelling the demand for drugs.

One indication of this policy turn came in Tuesday's formal announcement of the president's $16 billion plan to combat drugs, almost lost among the same day's new disclosures about his political fundraising tactics. His drug plan calls for $175 million a year - to be matched by private donors - for national antidrug advertising. Target: America's youth, sixth-graders through high school seniors. The only way to win the battle against drugs, Mr. McCaffrey recently told a group of Monitor writers and editors, is to keep the young from ever starting the slide toward addiction.

The ads' message that drug use is self-destructive and foolish has to be reinforced by parents, teachers, coaches, and other adults that young people are close to. But getting an effective antidrug message before youngsters during their prime TV-watching hours is a bedrock element of any credible preventive effort.

McCaffrey's office notes that the amount of such advertising has fallen off in recent years, and that the decline has coincided with an increase in drug use by youth. This despite the efforts of private groups such as the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which have continued to develop antidrug messages but have found it harder to get them placed in an ever more competitive broadcasting environment.

The federally sponsored advertising campaign is designed to augment, not displace, ongoing private efforts. Most important, the federal money would make it possible to break into prime time. Age-targeted ads could be aired when young viewers are most likely to be watching.

Much, of course, will depend on the quality of the ads. The government should draw heavily on the experience of groups that have been doing this for years and who have thoroughly researched young audiences.

McCaffrey also has started a dialogue with the producers of TV shows, hoping to influence the way drug use is portrayed on the screen. He'd like to see more "realism" in this portrayal - showing that the use of marijuana, cocaine, heroin, or other substances is neither cool nor funny. Nor is it the norm among American kids, he adds. Eighty percent of high school seniors never touch illegal drugs.

As we've said before, the crucial communication to discourage drug use happens in the home, and to a lesser extent in the school. But the message sent by the nation to its youth via the national media should not be discounted. It's an important part of the overall antidrug campaign, and the Congress should promptly back the administration's proposal to strengthen it.

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