Congress to Decide Whether to Renew Controversial and Costly Anti-Drug Ads

Press Release May 7, 2003
Media Contact

Tony Newman at 212-613-8026 or Shayna Samuels at 646-523-6961

Congress will take the first step next week in deciding whether or not to renew the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign, a controversial ad campaign that cost taxpayers over a billion dollars in the last six years, despite numerous government studies showing it has failed to meet its intended goals of reducing drug use. The first vote on renewing the campaign is likely to occur on Thursday, May 15th in the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources. Chairman Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN) and Ranking Member Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD) both support renewing the controversial ad campaign, despite the fact that the government’s own studies have found them to be failures.

According to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and the President’s budget submission for 2004, “The National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has not demonstrated the results sought, and does not yet have adequate performance measures and related goals.” In addition, every study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) has found these ads to be ineffective in reducing youth drug use. Even Drug Czar John Walters has admitted the media campaign is a flop, telling the Wall Street Journal “this campaign isn’t reducing drug use.”

NIDA’s most recent studies have found that the ad campaign not only fails to reduce drug use, but may actually make youth more likely to use marijuana in the future. According to NIDA, the ads may give youth the perception that drug use is common among their peers; and may also trigger what psychologists call “reactance” — the more someone is told what not to do, the more they want to do it. Other experts believe the ads are so ridiculous and over-the-top that young people dismiss them outright, assuming they’re being lied to. NIDA’s final evaluation of the program’s effectiveness will be released later this year.

Drug Policy Alliance is urging Members of Congress to cancel the expensive ad campaign and spend the money on drug treatment, after-school programs and other prevention programs that cost less and are proven to work. At a minimum, say experts at the Alliance, Congress should wait until NIDA releases its study later this year before deciding whether or not to renew the program. If Congress does renew the program, it should be only for one year instead of five, consistent with OMB recommendations that 2005 funding be contingent upon improved results.

“If Members of Congress vote to renew the ad campaign before NIDA releases its final evaluation of the program later this year, they risk not only wasting taxpayer money but contributing to an increase in youth drug use,” said Bill Piper, Associate Director of National Affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance. “A vote to renew the ads is a vote against parents and taxpayers.”

A recent Congressional report warned that Members of Congress “are deeply disturbed by the lack of evidence that the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign has had any appreciable impact on youth drug use…;If the campaign continues to fail to demonstrate effectiveness, then the Committee will be compelled to reevaluate the use of taxpayer money to support the Media Campaign.”

From the start the media campaign has been embroiled in controversy. In addition to the numerous government studies finding the ads ineffective in reducing drug use, the Drug Czar’s office has used this media campaign to bribe television networks to change their scripts and magazines to editorialize on certain subjects. They were accused of violating federal law by manipulating measurement criteria to make the media campaign look effective, and faced Congressional heat over its decision to maintain contracts with Ogilvy & Mather – an advertising agency that has over-billed taxpayers for its work on the media campaign. In addition, the recently canceled “drugs and terror” ads were roundly criticized from all quarters, including the Partnership for a Drug Free America, which called them off-strategy, and the Weekly Standard, which called the ads “propaganda worthy of the…;Soviet Union.” The most recent anti-drug ads featuring teenage pregnancy and an accidental handgun shooting have been accused of promoting pro-life views and gun control.

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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