Study: Anti-Drug Ads Haven't Worked

Report finds $1 billion campaign to curb teen drug use may have encouraged it.

ByABC News
October 15, 2008, 2:57 PM

Oct. 15, 2008— -- Despite investing $1 billion in a massive anti-drug campaign, a controversial new study suggests that the push has failed to help the United States win the war on drugs.

A congressionally mandated study released today concluded that the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign launched in the late 1990s to encourage young people to stay away from drugs "is unlikely to have had favorable effects on youths."

In fact, the study's authors assert that anti-drug ads may have unwittingly delivered the message that other kids were doing drugs, inadvertently slowing measured progress that was being made to curb marijuana use among teenagers.

"Youths who saw the campaign ads took from them the message that their peers were using marijuana," the report suggests as a possible reason for its findings. "In turn, those who came to believe that their peers were using marijuana were more likely to initiate use themselves."

The study's authors called the findings, published in the December edition of the American Journal of Public Health, "particularly worrisome because they were unexpected."

The widespread anti-drug campaign, which sprang from the efforts of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America and supervised by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, targeted 12- to 18-year-olds starting in 1998. It has since pervaded American households via commercials, Web sites, advertisements in movie theaters and other platforms.

According to the study, 94 percent of young people surveyed reported being exposed to the government campaign, on average seeing about two to three messages per week.

"Overall, the campaign was successful in achieving a high level of exposure to its messages; however, there is no evidence to support the claim that this exposure affected youths' marijuana use as desired," the report said.

This afternoon, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy disputed the study's findings. ONDCP spokesman Tom Riley said the ads in the study concluded four years ago, and since that time, the anti-drug campaign has significantly evolved, in part to incorporate new research into its messages.

"This campaign has been a striking success," Riley said. "Teen drug use in exactly the campaign's demographic has dropped sharply - there are over 800,000 fewer American teens using drugs now than there were in 2001."

The ONDCP also said evidence shows drug use among those not targeted by the campaign showed no change at the same time that behaviors changed specifically among those targeted. Riley said that in the same period of time, teens have become increasingly aware of the harm drugs can do.

Indeed, despite the study's findings, marijuana use among teens is down, not up.

Teenagers' marijuana use has declined by about 40 percent between 1997 -- before the anti-drug campaign began -- and 2007, according to a study released last year by the group, Monitoring the Future.