In-your-face ads turn some kids off drugs

Government's $1 billion media blitz makes headway, but can it reach hard- core users?

Nicole Apollon would rather tap dance than get high.

The eighth-grader from the Bronx is vehemently opposed to any kind of drug use - be it tobacco, alcohol, or marijuana.

"Drugs mess up your mind, when you try to think about something it gets all scrambled up and confused," she says.

Ms. Apollon's attitude reflects what Washington policymakers say is a shift in America's adolescents away from illicit drug use.

Throughout most of the 1990s, teen use of marijuana, stimulants and hard drugs steadily climbed. Two years ago, use rates began to stabilize. Now there are indications that more kids like Nicole could start to bring use rates back down.

Television ads could be playing a pivotal role.

"We're confident that if you can shape youth attitudes, you can change their drug-taking behavior," says Gen. Barry McCaffrey (ret.), director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP).

This week, General McCaffrey and President Clinton rolled out the third phase of their billion-dollar five-year antidrug media campaign begun in 1997. It's the largest and most comprehensive stage in the only scientifically based antidrug media campaign ever undertaken in the United States. And McCaffrey and Clinton both crowed over its unexpected success so far.

"If you're a teenager or a parent it is nearly impossible to avoid seeing or hearing our antidrug messages on television or radio several times a month," Clinton said on Monday. "[It] appears to be working even better than we thought."

An evaluation of the media campaign's second phase, funded by ONDCP, found that the campaign had significantly changed kids' attitudes. One commercial has an angry young white woman smashing a frying pan around a kitchen to demonstrate what heroin-use can do to someone.

Another has an earnest black girl talking about how crack had destroyed her brother and how she wants to become a teacher to let other kids know to never do drugs. "Girlfriend, you are beautiful," says the narrator.

The percentage of kids who said they "learned a lot about drugs from the ads" jumped from 44 to 55 percent, according to the ONDCP's evaluation. The percentage of kids who agreed that the ads "made them stay away from drugs" increased from 61 to 69 percent. The study was based on surveys conducted at the beginning and end of the six-month pilot, which was launched in early summer of 1998.

Nicole says she's seen several of the ads: "They make me think that drugs are a bad thing."

Researchers had not expected to see significant attitude changes for at least another year. And many hope the findings of the ONDCP survey will signal the beginning of a real turnaround in adolescent drug use.

The University of Michigan's 1998 Monitoring the Future Study, based on data collected before the media campaign got under way, had found that teen drug use had stabilized or even begun to decrease in most categories. The findings released this week are adding to researchers' optimism.

"There is no magic cure, there's no magic single prevention device," says Dr. Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, "but there's no question that you can change attitude through the media."

But critics charge that the media campaign does not target alcohol, which studies show adolescents are far more likely to abuse than drugs. This June, several legislators tried to put alcohol under the ONDCP's purview, but failed. Instead, lawmakers approved McCaffrey's plan to study the creation of a separate antialcohol campaign.

Other critics are also concerned that the antidrug media messages aren't tough enough to reach kids who are already in trouble. In four focus groups conducted early this year at various Department of Juvenile Justice facilities in Maryland, juvenile offenders were asked about the ads. Many said they'd seen the ads, but weren't impressed.

"The commercials should show real effects - not smashing stuff like they do in the heroin commercial," said one offender.

But ONDCP officials defend the content of their ads, noting they're designed and scientifically derived as prevention tools - to influence kids before they start using, or before they've progressed very far in their experimentation.

Leshner's office will monitor the next phase of the media campaign, which include hundreds of new ads in 11 different languages.

"As we learn what's working and not working, adjustments can be made," he says. "This is not just a yes-no evaluation."

But some researchers who deal with high-risk kids such as juvenile offenders, would like the ONDCP to expand its efforts.

"Perhaps it would be useful to do some sort of market analysis to find out what type of messages high-risk kids would be receptive to," says Eric Wish, director at the Center for Substance Abuse Research, University of Maryland.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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