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Surveys differ on effectiveness of anti-drug campaign
Scripps Howard News Service


September 05, 2006

Regional and national surveys differ on whether the federal anti-drug ad campaign over several years helped reduce illegal drug use among youths.

A recent analysis by the U.S. Government Accountability Office looked at a national survey by a contractor, Westat Inc., and concluded that there was "credible evidence" that a national TV, radio and print campaign "was not effective in reducing youth drug use" from 1998 to 2004. About $1.2 billion was spent over those years, the GAO found.




By contrast, a four-year regional survey of Tennessee and Kentucky students, grades 4 to 12, found that the ad campaign targeting marijuana use in 2002 and 2003 had a significant effect on youths.

In that period, the percent of frequent substance abusers reporting marijuana use in the past 30 days dropped from about 18 percent to 13 percent, the study found.

The latter study, conducted by faculty at the University of Kentucky, Texas A&M and Duke, did random, confidential surveys each month with 100 Knoxville, Tenn., students and 100 Lexington, Ky., students, according to Philip Palmgreen, a researcher at UK's Communications Department. The study ran from April 1999 through March 2003, involving a total of nearly 10,000 students, and located cooperative students by telephone who later completed a confidential survey at their homes on a laptop computer.

"The great majority of students remembered seeing the anti-drug public-service announcements frequently throughout the campaign," Palmgreen said in an interview.

The GAO recommended that Congress cut funding for the ad campaign, which is costing about $100 million this year, until the White House drug-control office can prove that it is effective in reducing drug abuse.

Many of the federal public-service commercials can be viewed and seen at

U.S. Rep. Zach Wamp, R-Tenn., a member of the House appropriations committee, which sets federal program spending levels, praised the part of the anti-drug campaign that urges parents to communicate regularly with their children on reasons for not abusing drugs. He has two teenage sons.

Wamp said he and one of his sons have watched some anti-drug commercials and did not think they were very effective. He said he would like more study on their impact.

The investment in the ad campaigns is very important, he said, whether it is about alcohol abuse or other drug abuse. At this point, however, "I'm not sure that the money is well spent." Some commercials "make drugs look mysterious or interesting or even cool. I think they have to be careful in these ads of being too cool or too cute with the kids."

Wamp recalled favorably Nancy Reagan's "Just Say No" campaign. "It made its way to a slogan at the dinner table. Everybody knew what it was. I don't think that these (current) ads permeate our culture."

The White House drug czar, John Walters, said the national survey by Westat had multiple flaws, is 2 years old, and does not include improvements in recent ad campaigns.

Other national surveys have found significant reductions in drug abuse, Walters said in a written response to the GAO study. One study documented a 19 percent decline in illegal drug use among eighth-, 10th- and 12th-graders over the last four years, he said. Cutting the budget of the national anti-drug ad campaign "could have far-reaching and unfavorable consequences," Walters warned. Mass media and popular culture with a pro-drug message need a counter message, he said.


Contact Richard Powelson of The Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee at
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Ketchikan, Alaska