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Anti-drug ads' efficacy in dispute
Critics: Money is better spent on treatment

Gary Fields and Carrie Hedges
Contributing: Mimi Hall
July 10, 1998

The government's new anti-drug campaign has managed to bridge
partisan differences. Congress passed the initial spending, and
Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich joined President Clinton
at the kickoff Thursday in Atlanta. But it faces a higher hurdle
in trying to bridge the gap between kids and adults.

As the first ads appeared in a Thursday night blitz, the debate
grew over whether they can influence ad-sophisticated children
and teens.

Speaking to an audience of mostly young people in Atlanta, Clinton
cited personal experience.

"My brother nearly died from a cocaine habit," he said. "What
kind of fool was I that I didn't know this was going on?"

The government is spending $ 195 million a year on the ads, which
have been tested in 12 cities. Networks, newspapers and other
media are matching the ad buys with an equal amount of free spots.

The goal is to reduce teen drug use within two years. Despite
a general decline in use of illegal drugs in the past decade,
teen use has been increasing, according to the president's Office
of Drug Control Policy.

Tom Hedrick, co-chairman of the Partnership for a Drug-Free America,
a nonprofit group of ad industry professionals that is co-sponsoring
the campaign with the Office of National Drug Control Policy,
said several studies show that the blitz can work. Those studies
conducted smaller-scale campaigns comparable to the new one, and
they measured changes in attitudes and behavior, he says.

Hedrick says the ads are meant to raise awareness among children
and alert their parents that they should talk to kids about drugs
before the prime drug-experimenting age of 13 or 14. He says children
whose parents talk to them explicitly about drugs are twice as
likely not to use them, but only a third of parents do.

Thomas Blomberg, a criminologist at Florida State University,
says ad campaigns can change behavior, but they must be sustained
or "the effects will be short-lived."

Critics say there is little evidence that such campaigns work.
They say the money could be better spent on treating addicts.

"For the past 10 years, our nation's kids have been bombarded
with anti-drug messages, and it is these same kids who are experimenting with more drugs," said Ethan Nadelmann of the Lindesmith Center, a drug policy group funded by investor George Soros, who advocates decriminalizing some drugs and emphasizing treatment over punishment.

"Advertisements alone are not enough," says Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.,
a former federal prosecutor. He says Clinton should support stiffer
sentences for drug kingpins and stronger efforts to eradicate
drugs in other countries.

But Sue Rusche of National Families in Action, a drug prevention
program based in Atlanta, said studies have shown that anti-drug
ads do work. She applauds the Clinton administration's effort.
"There is awfully good research that they are effective. They
do influence kids and they do change attitudes."

The new campaign, she says, comes just in time to counterattack
a recent rush of movies, commercials and music videos that glamorize
drug use, including so-called "heroin chic" fashion ads with
strung-out-looking models in trendy clothes.

Rusche watched the ads with an audience of several hundred teen-agers. "The one everybody loved was the fried egg ad," an extremely
vivid spot in which a young woman trashes a kitchen with a frying
pan to demonstrate the personal destruction caused by drug abuse.
She says, "People just gravitate to that ad and they really get it. The audience clapped and hollered and the end of it. . . . It is an honest portrayal of addiction and it really spoke to the people in the audience. "

Claudia Matus, an 18-year old high school senior in Gaithersburg,
Md., has seen the frying pan ad and pronounced it "cool." But
she is not sure how effective the campaign will be on her age

"It may scare some of the younger kids off from doing drugs,"
she said. "But honestly, I don't think it is going to reach kids
who are already doing drugs. They are just going to say it's bull."

Jack Levin, a criminologist at Northeastern University in Boston,
agrees. Media campaigns have proven ineffective with young people,
he says.

"The anti-smoking campaign effectively lowered smoking among
adults," Levin says. "But 4,000 teen-agers take up smoking daily
in this country. If the anti-smoking campaign hasn't worked for
teen-agers, why do we think the anti-drug campaign is going to
be any more effective?"


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