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Opinion

Bigger scandal in Latin America than US secret service: US drug hunger

The secret service prostitution scandal overshadows renewed calls at the Summit of the Americas for the US to stanch its drug consumption. A viral 'Drug Violence 2012' video (think 'Kony 2012') would help young Americans connect US drug use to violence in Central and South America.

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If the US refuses to decriminalize drugs and enforcement efforts are not enough to quell consumption, then the Office of National Drug Control Policy needs to rethink its prevention strategy. Utilizing the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign (a propaganda campaign from the executive office and the Office of National Drug Policy) to educate young Americans on the magnitude of the regional violence. Challenging viewers to consider the international consequences of their actions is a strategy that has yet to be tried. Yet it could have far-reaching effects, both domestically and abroad.

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Consider that in Mexico alone, there have been nearly 50,000 deaths from drug-related violence since President Felipe Calderón took office at the end of 2006. This breaks down to roughly one murder per hour for the past five years. Violence has spread further south, and Honduras and El Salvador now have among the highest rates of homicide in the world. Yet none of these facts or figures is incorporated into the anti-drug messaging that is broadcast in the US.

A prevention ad that exposes these realities and challenges its audience to boycott drugs in a stand against international violence could resonate with an older demographic that is not targeted in the current media campaign. While the widely recognized “Above the Influence” campaign has been successful at reaching early teens, it has narrowly focused on children between the ages of 12 and 17. Yet many people experiment with drugs as early adults.

The 2010 National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH) found that the percentage of drug users among young adults aged 18 to 25 was more than twice the percentage of drug users between the ages of 12 to 17. A media pitch that moves beyond the basic concept of peer pressure and appeals to an older audience needs to supplement the US anti-drug campaign.

This advertising strategy has been used before and has proven effective. The anti-smoking “Truth” campaign, launched in 2000 by the American Legacy Foundation, helped reduce and prevent tobacco use among teens because it empowered young adults to stand against the tobacco industry, not necessarily tobacco itself or peers using tobacco.

Additionally, a reimagined media campaign can serve a dual purpose: It would educate and promote prevention among an American audience, but would also send a powerful diplomatic message to foreign partners who demand that the US recognize its role in fueling the regional violence.

To be sure, US drug consumption is only one facet of the violence that spreads through Mexico and elsewhere in Central America, and successfully curbing it will require a multi-faceted approach. But a redesigned media campaign that targets a wider audience of young adults and empowers its audience to stand against regional violence can be a useful tool within a comprehensive strategy.

A viral “Drug Violence 2012” video might be the first step to reducing the American demand for drugs and the resulting drug violence.

Kristin Lewis is assistant director of the Task Force Program at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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