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Fleeced by Anti-Drug Ads

Mises Daily: Monday, June 16, 2003 by

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It's often said that Congress has never met an anti-drug program it didn't like. The White House's "National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign" is no exception. To date, the campaign has spent some $2 billion in taxpayer dollars and matching funds since 1998 to produce print, television, and radio advertisements urging "America's youth to reject illegal drugs," specifically marijuana. 

Nevertheless, a series of federally funded evaluations of the program have consistently shown that the ads fail to discourage viewers from trying pot or other drugs, and in some cases actually foster "pro-drug" beliefs among teens.

These evaluations include:

  • A May 2002 review by the research firm Westat Inc. and the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania that found "no statistically significant decline in marijuana use or improvement in beliefs and attitudes about marijuana use" attributable to the ad campaign. Authors also acknowledged that there was "no tendency for those reporting more exposure to Campaign messages to hold more desirable beliefs" about the dangers of illicit drugs.      
  • A January 2003 Westat and Annenberg evaluation reaffirming that there is "little evidence of direct favorable Campaign effects on youth."  Moreover, the authors conceded that "contrarily, there are some unfavorable trends in youth anti-marijuana beliefs" attributable to the ad campaign. (Following this critique, the White House abruptly severed its $35 million contract with Westat and Annenberg to conduct biannual reviews of the Media Campaign.)      
  • A February 2003 performance assessment by the White House Office of Management and Budget criticizing the Media Campaign for failing to achieve any tangible goals or objectives. There exists  "no evidence that paid media messages have a direct effect on youth drug-related behavior," the report concluded. As a result, its authors recommended Congress restrict funding for the campaign pending further evaluation.      
  • A Spring 2003 study published in the Journal of Health Communication examining the impact of a series of federal antimarijuana advertisements on youth attitudes and behavior. The researchers reported "no clear persuasion or priming effects . . . for any of the ad sequences" among a sample of 418 middle and high school students assigned to view the ads. Authors further warned that the ads' message could potentially have a "boomerang" effect on its target audience.

It should come as no surprise to researchers or lawmakers that the Media Campaign is having the opposite effect on America's teens than the one intended. Teenagers know the difference between factual information and government propaganda, and the fed's ad campaign clearly falls into the latter category. For example, take the White House's ad spot linking recreational drug use and international terrorism. "Where do terrorists get their money?" asks the ad, which debuted during the 2002 Super Bowl broadcast at a cost of some $3.4 million. "If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."

Please!  While a small portion of black market profits may theoretically fund certain terrorist groups around the globe, this outcome is not the result of drugs per se, but the result of federal drug policies that keep them illegal—thus inflating their prices and relegating their production and trade exclusively to criminal entrepreneurs. Therefore, if the federal government legitimately sought to break the alleged link between illicit drugs and terrorism, it would amend its policies to permit the legalization and regulation of such drugs in a manner similar to those already in place for other intoxicating substances such as tobacco and alcohol.

Of course, anyone waiting for such a policy change—or, in this case, truth in advertising—shouldn't hold their breath. In Washington, the drug war continues unabated regardless of the outcome. As such, despite the Media Campaign's consistently poor performance (only a preliminary review by the Partnership for a Drug Free American [a partner in the Media Campaign] reports any positive correlation between the ads and teens' decisions on drugs), lawmakers are nonetheless set to refund the ad program with a new five-year appropriation, which includes a $90 million funding boost!  Nevertheless, it's painfully apparent that the public isn't buying what the government is selling. Sadly, we're just the ones footing the bill.

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Paul Armentano is a senior policy analyst for The NORML Foundation (www.norml.org) in Washington, D.C., a think-tank which lobbies for the liberalization of marijuana laws. See his Daily Article Archive. He may be contacted via e-mail at: paularmentano@aol.com