SOLOMON: The Partnership for a Candor-Free America
The most famous anti-drug commercial in history -- a frying egg and a somber warning, "This is your brain on drugs" -- is badly in need of a sequel.Our new spot opens with a wide-angle shot of a press conference featuring the president of ABC Television. Also in the picture are speakers from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, plus federal officials in charge of education, health and drug policy."This is your nation's leadership on drugs," the announcer intones. "A more sanctimonious and hypocritical bunch you couldn't imagine."With the help of computer graphics, the dignitaries slowly morph into upscale party-goers. Some are smoking cigarettes, others are sipping cocktails -- and all have large checks spilling from their pockets."On March 4, 1997, these men and women gathered in Washington to launch yet another 'anti-drug' campaign," the script goes on. "But they continued to tiptoe around the most damaging drugs in our society. As a practical matter, they're flunkies for the multibillion-dollar interests behind cigarettes and alcohol."You might think that such a public-service ad would be unfair. But consider these facts:* The U.S. government is providing half the funds for a new $350 million media campaign against drugs. But the advertising drive -- which depends on matching donations from media companies -- will give short shrift to cigarettes and alcohol.* This month, the ABC television and radio networks are engaged in a "March Against Drugs" programming blitz with little to say about smoking and drinking.* During the past 10 years, the Partnership for a Drug-Free America has produced $2 billion worth of ads. None of them have said an ill word about tobacco or alcohol.The Partnership depends on free air time and print space. "By far, ABC has contributed more media time and space than any other company," the organization declares. "Our tremendous success over the past decade is a direct reflection of their belief in our cause."Now, after joining itself at the hip with the Partnership and like-minded federal officials, ABC News is in no position to let the chips fall where they may."ABC's March Against Drugs" -- which has enlisted such key shows as "Good Morning America" and "World News Tonight" -- would more aptly be named "ABC's March Against Journalism."In a letter to ABC, several drug-policy groups blasted the Partnership: "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." Yet, in the United States, "over 500,000 people die each year from alcohol and tobacco -- 35 times the number of deaths from all illegal drugs combined."Mike Males, a sociologist who authored The Scapegoat Generation, points out that federal authorities concentrate on bad-mouthing underage use of tobacco and alcohol -- thereby enhancing the image of smoking and drinking as "mature" activities."Instead of teaming up with political and private drug-war interests to scapegoat young people," Males comments, "ABC and other media would do a far greater public service to investigate at arm's length why the war on drugs is such a monumental failure."Clearly, finger-wagging techniques don't work. Extensive research -- including the U.S. Education Department's recent evaluation of D.A.R.E. programs -- proves that "just say no" messages are not effective in reducing drug use among children and adolescents.Because the Partnership for a Drug-Free America has refused to utter a word against cigarettes or alcohol, news media have found it easier to downplay those major threats to public health. The current anti-drug effort by ABC is a case in point.When ABC faxed me a dozen pages about this month's special news reports with "anti-drug themes," the only targeted drugs were marijuana, heroin and "sniffing inhalants." The selective coverage will, no doubt, gratify the beer marketers and conglomerates with tobacco holdings that pour huge ad revenues into ABC's coffers.Talk about addiction! From the network suites of ABC to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America to officialdom in Washington, movers and shakers are hobbled by dependency on this nation's legal drug sellers -- the alcohol, tobacco and pharmaceutical firms that are all too happy to focus anti-drug ire elsewhere.Take a look around. This is your country. This is your country on drugs.