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Anti-Meth Ad Campaign a Wash
May 05, 2006
Maia Szalavitz
Despite plaudits from the media, scare tactics fall flat with teens (updated)

In March, we noted the New York Times’ uncritical coverage of the Montana Meth Project’s scary anti-drug advertising campaign. A body of literature on drug prevention suggests that while showing extreme consequences of drug use may win advertising awards and get people talking, such campaigns do not deter—and may even encourage—teen drug users. But NPR, CBS and NBC news all joined in the chorus of praise for the ads nonetheless.

Now, the Montana project has released its data—and surprise, surprise, fewer teens believe that there is “great” or “moderate” risk in trying methamphetamine and the number of teens who believe there is “no risk” in trying it has also increased since the start of the campaign. Both increases were statistically significant, although small.

The study also found a 3% increase in the number of teens who “strongly approved” of regular methamphetamine use as well as a possible increase in the number who’d actually tried the drug, although neither of these were statistically significant*.

On the plus side, the project did report increases in the number of conversations teens had with parents about meth and decreases in positive beliefs about meth such as increasing one’s popularity with peers.

But the media coverage of the data largely spotlighted the positive spin of the researchers, which hid the negative results in the data section and did not mention them in the executive summary. A notable exception was the Phoenix New Times which covered the story with the sarcastic headline, “For $5 million, Arizona can grow its population of meth users—just like Montana.”

When will we bother to use the data we already have about what works and what doesn’t for drug prevention—and stop throwing money away on ads that generate little more than talk?

*Editor's note: the first version of this story erred in reporting that the 3% increase in “strong approval” was statistically significant.