Almost everyone can recall a time when they’ve come in contact with an anti-drug campaign message. For many, these campaigns have little to no influence on their decision to use or abstain from drugs. As anti-drug campaign budgets grow, so do overdose rates in Americans. After almost five decades of failed anti-drug campaigns, what gives? Why are they missing the mark?

A Spotty History

In order to understand the far-reaching, modern-day implications of the anti-drug campaign initiative, you should explore the context of its conception. The infamous War On Drugs exponentially increased government spending and resource allocation to drug enforcement in 1971. At the time, 84 percent of the country agreed with President Nixon that drugs were public enemy number one. For two decades the public accepted and supported the War On Drugs until the public began realizing how ineffective it was.

The War On Drugs transformed with the next presidency, Ronald Reagan, to become known as “Just Say No,” which sought to educate youth about the dangers of recreational drug use. During Reagan’s administration, Congress passed the Anti-Drug Abuse Act, which required mandatory minimum sentencing for drug use. As we move into modern day, the general attitude toward the War On Drugs is tepid compared to the growing positive attitudes towards rehabilitation and prevention, not criminalization. Because anti-drug campaigns have proved ineffective in many ways, focusing on recovery and the roots of addiction can be forward thinking. Acknowledging and analyzing the reasons why people turn to substances can help prevent a large epidemic.

Lack of Research

Hundreds of billions of dollars have been spent in an effort to understand more acutely how to craft effective anti-drug messages. According to anti-drug campaign expert Michael Slater, research suggests the most effective campaigns are those that tap into young adults’ independence and making their own decisions. Despite the amount of time and resources dedicated to understanding what messages will enact attitude and behavior changes, anti-drug campaigns continue to be based on anecdotal evidence.

You may recall the anti-drug ad comparing your brain to an egg, declaring your brain on drugs is like a scrambled egg. For many, this campaign ignores the recommendations of empowering young people to claim their independence by separating themselves from the pressures of drug use. Rather, it provided them with comedic material to mock. In order to craft effective and educational messages, research must be at the center of the conversation, keeping the proper target audience’s best interest at heart.

  • Who do they want to hear these messages from?
  • How do they want to receive those messages?
  • What medium do they want to see the messages on?

Anti-drug campaigns must prioritize research and work in tandem with people from the communities they are targeting

Problematic Narratives

A common misconception is that we need to get dealers off the street to stop the opioid epidemic. This is an oversimplification of the issue at hand. In the late 1900s painkillers were advertised as non-addictive. Since then, up to 29 percent of patients who are prescribed opioids misuse them, according to the National Health Institute.

However, the narrative surrounding opioids continues to reflect a story where these substances come solely from run-down, poor neighborhoods. While a large portion of synthetic opioids come from the streets, that is not the whole story.

The conversation needs to shift from a message that resembles a chastising parent to a relatable narrative that frames substance use disorder as a disease that can and should be treated.

Medical Disclaimer

The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare providers.