Saturday, June 08, 2002
Drug czar: Anti-drug ads too soft, ineffective
By Derrick DePledge
Enquirer Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON Anti-drug messages from pop stars like Mary J. Blige and the Dixie Chicks are fine, but the White House drug czar wants the government to send much stronger warnings to young people about the risks of getting high.
Newer ads that link casual teen drug use with international terrorism and other blunt, unambiguous themes soon may dominate the government's anti-drug media campaign, pushing out softer approaches that have achieved mixed results.
John Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, described the government's five-year, $930 million ad campaign as ineffective last month and promised changes if Congress extends financing for the program.
His comments, in newspaper and television interviews, surprised many who worked on the ad campaign and upset several Republicans who wonder if Mr. Walters inadvertently may have undercut the government's anti-drug message.
Two House committees have scheduled congressional hearings this month on the ad campaign and expect Mr. Walters to testify about his remarks.
I'm really at a loss, said Rep. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, who co-chairs the House speaker's drug task force. I would just hate if the message coming from our drug czar is that we ought to back off on our media campaign.
Mr. Portman and other lawmakers agree with Mr. Walters that the government should send the strongest anti-drug message possible but not with his dismissal of the ad campaign, which he had criticized before taking the job as President Bush's drug policy adviser.
The ad campaign began in 12 cities in 1998 and expanded nationwide in an attempt to influence behavior among young people and their parents. The government has formed partnerships with community groups, corporations and entertainment and sports figures, and the media has matched federally financed advertising with free air time.
The campaign's goal is to educate young people about drug use, prevent young people from experimenting with drugs especially marijuana and inhalants and encourage occasional drug users to stop. The campaign also urges parents to talk with their children about the dangers of drugs.
A review after the second stage of the campaign in June 1999 found an increase in the number of young people who said the ads made them less likely to try drugs. A comprehensive study completed in October 2001 found that the campaign with spots that include music and sports stars had no significant effect on young people.
However, the study did find evidence that parents who watched the ads were more likely to talk with their children about drug use and monitor their children's behavior.
Tom Riley, a spokesman for the drug czar, said Mr. Walters wanted to confront the negative findings publicly before drug-legalization activists seized on the study as proof such ads are a waste of taxpayer money. Mr. Riley said the administration supports $180 million in federal money for the ad campaign next year, the same amount it received this year.
But Mr. Portman said the drug czar's comments might make it harder to defend the campaign in Congress.
He took a report that had mixed results and focused on the negative, said Mr. Portman, a close ally of the Bush administration. He left the impression that anti-drug ads don't work. I think he's wrong. I think they do work.
Mr. Portman said a similar ad campaign from the Coalition for a Drug-Free Greater Cincinnati has produced promising results. A recent survey of more than 67,000 students found those who saw the ads most often had the largest declines in monthly use of drugs, alcohol and tobacco.
Paul Zimmerman, a Procter & Gamble researcher who designed the student survey, said the biggest influences on children's behavior were their parents and church. But he believes the anti-drug ad campaign makes a difference.
It's very meaningful, he said. I'm confident it's having a measurable effect.
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