Wednesday, 10 December 2008

An independent review investigating the effectiveness of a publicly funded graphic anti-methamphetamine advertising campaign in the United States has found that the campaign has been associated with many negative outcomes, including increases in the acceptability of drug use.

The review was published in the December issue of the peer-reviewed journal Prevention Science .

David Erceg-Hurn, who is currently completing his PhD in Clinical Psychology at The University of Western Australia, closely scrutinised the research findings of the Montana Meth Project (MMP).  The MMP is an organisation responsible for conducting an expensive anti-meth graphic advertising campaign in the American state of Montana.

The ad campaign aims to reduce meth use by showing the extreme consequences of using meth "just once."  Meth users are shown committing violent crimes, leaving friends to die and engaging in prostitution to fund their meth habit.

The US ads are similar to graphic anti-ice ads launched in Australia by the Federal Government in 2007.  Ice (also known as crystal methamphetamine) is a particularly addictive form of meth.

The negative outcomes identified in Mr Erceg-Hurn's review include: following six months exposure to the graphic ads, there was a threefold increase in the percentage of teenagers who reported that using meth is not a risky behaviour; teenagers were four times more likely to strongly approve of regular meth use; teenagers were more likely to report that taking heroin and cocaine is not risky; and up to 50% of teenagers reported that the graphic ads exaggerate the risks of using meth.

The review found that the MMP overlooked these unflattering results when promoting their research findings to policymakers and the media.  Instead, the MMP focused on select positive findings.  Mr Erceg-Hurn said that it is important for organisations that are considering funding the MMP's ad campaign to be made aware of all of the MMP's findings - positive and negative.

The MMP has received millions in government funding, and donations from several corporations and community organisations.

Mr Erceg-Hurn criticised claims by MMP that the ad campaign has been responsible for reducing meth use in Montana.

"Meth use had been declining for at least six years before the ad campaign commenced, which suggests that factors other than the graphic ads cause reductions in meth use.  Another issue is that the launch of the ad campaign coincided with restrictions on the sale of cold and flu medicines commonly used in the production of meth.  This means that drug use could be declining due to decreased production of meth, rather than being the result of the ad campaign."

Mr Erceg-Hurn also pointed out in his review that due to the way the MMP has conducted their research, it is impossible to conclude that the ad campaign had any effect on meth use.  To draw such conclusions would require much more rigorous research.  This would involve examining two groups of teenagers that were equivalent in terms of drug use, exposing only one group to the graphic ads, and then examining any differences between the groups in their drug use.

The theory underlying the MMP's ad campaign was also criticised by Mr Erceg-Hurn.  "The idea behind the ad campaign is that teenagers take meth because they believe it is socially acceptable, and not risky - and the ads are meant to alter these perceptions.  However, this theory is flawed because the Meth Project's own data shows that 98% of teenagers strongly disapproved of meth use and 97% thought using meth was risky before the campaign started."

The review also points out that considerable prior research has found that large anti-drug advertising campaigns can be ineffective and sometimes harmful.  For example, the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has cost American taxpayers over $1.5 billion since 1998.  Several reports have found that the ad campaign has not reduced drug use.  The only significant results have been in an unfavourable direction - some youths reported an increase in marijuana use upon increased exposure to the campaign.

Mr Erceg-Hurn concluded in his review that based on current evidence, continued public funding and rollout of Montana-style anti-methamphetamine graphic ad campaign programs is inadvisable.  This has implications for the use of graphic anti-ice ads in Australia.

"We need to carefully evaluate the impact of Australia's graphic anti-meth ads, given that similar ads in the US have been associated with increases in the acceptability of drug use.  The government should consider redirecting funding to alternative ice prevention programs that are not based on fear."

Media references

David Erceg-Hurn (UWA School of Psychology)  (+61 8)  6488 3277  /  (+61 4) 03 990 346
Janine McDonald (UWA Public Affairs)  (+61 8)  6488 5563  /  (+61 4) 32 637 716


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