"Just Say No" to the Partnership for a Drug Free America
Instead of: "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" how about: "These are your kids. These are you kids laughing at the ads while passing a joint. Any questions?" If increased drug use is any indication that these ads aren't working, consider the fact that marijuana use among pre-teenagers has increased from roughly 230,000 children in 1995 to 460,000 children in 1996. In fact, such scare-tactic campaigns -- employed by the Partnership for a Drug Free America -- are out of step with current scientific thought and may do children more harm than good, contends a broad coalition of political leaders, drug education experts and national organizations. The coalition is mobilizing efforts to scrutinize the Partnership's next phase of its "just say no" campaigning, set to run on ABC's "March Against Drugs" series this month."Rather than curb teen drug abuse, the Partnership's ad campaign seems primarily focused on generating public support for a drug war that has mostly hurt, not helped young people by chipping away at their civil rights and by punishing those most in need of help," reads a coalition-sponsored letter to ABC's president, drafted by Common Sense for Drug Policy, a Washington, D.C.-based clearinghouse for drug policy alternatives. It goes on to say that messages used by the Partnership and other organizations "do little to address the needs or influence the long-term behavior of youths who are most at risk of drug abuse or who have already used drugs."While ABC acknowledged that the series does exclude some important issues, the network maintains its campaign is directed to a simple goal: getting parents to talk to their children about drug use. "[Your] point is that there are pressing social concerns we are not addressing in this campaign. You are, of course, correct," wrote ABC President David Westin, in response to the charges. But by running the series, opponents fear the network will reflect the Partnership for a Drug Free America's zero-tolerance message, a message that may actually inhibit meaningful dialogue between parents and children, especially among young people who already are experimenting with drugs. The group also takes issue with the fact that the Partnership supports mandatory drug testing for youth, which it believes to be "a recipe for fostering mistrust between parents and their children." And interestingly enough, opponents point out, the Partnership runs no anti-alcohol or anti-tobacco ads, even though the number of people who die each from alcohol and tobacco is 35 times the number of deaths from illegal drugs. By excluding any mention of alcohol and tobacco, the implicit message sent to kids and the general public is that legal drugs are not as harmful as illegal drugs. In addition, critics do not believe the ads influence behavior of young people -- especially older adults -- in the long run. Adolescent drug use went down from 1979 until 1991, the year it began to rise again. The Partnership's ad campaign has run continuously since 1987. In response to such concerns that the ABC/Partnership collaboration will not represent the full spectrum of views on drug policy, the coalition has suggested the network include such story ideas as the impact of the drug war on families, minorities and women. Whether or not the program will address the group's concern is questionable.The Partnership, a non-profit coalition of advertising agencies and media professionals (including the ABC Network), is pushing this media effort with Reader's Digest magazine and the Education Department. Education Secretary Richard Riley lent his support for the project, saying that as part of the Clinton administration's $556 million effort to educate young people, he would launch "a vigorous review of anti-drug programs to see if they can pass muster." For its part, the Education Department will join with ABC to distribute some 3 million guides for parents on discussing drugs with children. Warning to parents: the material has been written by advertisers, not drug education specialists. Coalition members include a myriad of drug education experts: the Drug Policy Foundation; Criminal Justice Consortium; American Civil Liberties Union; Mothers Against Misuse and Abuse; U.S. Reps. Pete Stark and Maxine Waters; Dan Baum, former Wall St. Journal reporter and author of "Smoke and Mirrors"; and Joel Brown, Ph.D., who conducted the second largest study of in-school drug education programs for the California Department of Education.