Why Anti-drug Advertising Doesn't Actually "Work"
by Brian C. Bennett

So now John Walters, America's latest drug czar, has come forward and admitted that $929 million in anti-drug advertising over the past five years has accomplished absolutely nothing. That hasn't prevented his asking for another $180 million to continue the ads next year, however. Before spending another dime on these ads, Mr. Walters would be well advised to read the National Household Survey on Drug Abuse published annually by the US Dept of Health and Human Services. I've had a look at it, and some of the information it contains should give all of us reason to reflect on the "Serenity Prayer."

There is one simple reason why anti-drug advertising has virtually no effect: because drugs do have effects. The messages being provided by the Office of National Drug control Policy and Partnership For a Drug-Free America are falling on deaf ears simply because too many people know better.

In the 2000 NHSDA, are some fascinating tables that give the estimated numbers of "initiates" who are using a given intoxicant for the first time. What is really useful about this data is that the study provides the information for a variety of substances and covers the years 1965 through 1999. That's right, since 1965.

So what can we learn from this treasure trove of data? First, we can easily see that drug use is completely immune from both laws and advertising. Consider that the number of "initiates" cumulatively gives an indication of just how many substance users there are.

Since 1965, the numbers of users for any given substance demonstrate a clear trend across drug types, such that the more "dangerous" a given drug is, the fewer new users of said drug there are. Logically, of course, the total numbers of such users also reflect the same pattern.

For comparison purposes then, the total number of all new users of popular substances for the years 1965 through 1999 inclusive add up as follows: alcohol - 128.3 million, cigarettes - 99.7 million, marijuana - 74.8 million, hallucinogens - 25.5 million, cocaine - 24.9 million, inhalants - 16.5 million and heroin 2.7 million. That's right, according to this study, hardly anyone uses heroin, or ever has. Indeed, the old marijuana "gateway" theory is dealt a rather harsh deathblow with these figures.

Conveniently, the study also gives the average age of first time users for each substance in each year. Again, the results are quite interesting. The average age of first use for recreational intoxicants looks like this: cigarettes - 15.5 years old, alcohol - 16.9 years old, inhalants - 17.2 years old, marijuana - 18.1 years old, hallucinogens - 18.8 years old, cocaine - 21.4 years old, and heroin 22.1 years old.

Clearly, aiming anti-drug advertising at young people doesn't work, and it likely never will work. The reasons for this number in the millions. From the figures given, we can easily see that drug users have an inherent awareness of the actual "dangers" associated with given substances, and their drug taking behavior falls squarely in-line with this knowledge. Kids and young people aren't going to listen to government propaganda - they listen to each other instead.

Anti-drug advertising has been around since at least the early 1970's, and I personally remember being exposed to both the advertising and in-school "training" about illegal drugs. In my case, the result of the anti-drug messages was quite powerful: after being exposed to all the anti-drug talk, I couldn't wait to get high. Millions of Americans apparently feel the same way. Perhaps it's time for our government to apply the wisdom to know the difference.

Written May 20, 2002

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