August 2, 1999
Is the Clinton administration's media blitz effective in curbing drug use in young people? Media correspondent Terence Smith talks with two experts on the pros and cons of the on-air war on drugs.
The NewsHour Media Unit is funded by a grant from the Pew Charitable Trusts.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, reaction to this ad campaign, first from Jack Levin, Professor of Sociology and Criminology at Northeastern University. He's the director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict. Professor, welcome. What do you think of these ads? How do they strike you?
JACK LEVIN: Well, you know, it's not that they're that bad. It's just that they're not good. You know, teenagers might even like the challenge. They certainly aren't going to think of the consequences. You know, the best model is to look at what happened in our vast and pervasive anti-smoking campaign over the last decade. Adults stopped smoking, but 4,000 new teenagers take up cigarette smoking every day.
They're not convinced. In fact, they may even see it as cool, as a challenge because their friends see it that way. You know, keep in mind that -- that teenagers are not thinking about consequences, whether you're talking about spending 30 years behind bars for committing a crime, or getting lung cancer 30 years from now. So they're going to continue to get high, unless we give them a really persuasive argument. And none of these ads does that at all.
TERENCE SMITH: Do these strike you as in any way more sophisticated than those ads that came before?
JACK LEVIN: Well, none of them said that -- that the kids' brains will turn into egg beaters if that's what you mean. But I think they have the same essential problem: They don't give our youngsters alternatives to drug abuse. And what's missing here is some acknowledgment that our youngsters actually benefit from drug abuse, or at least they think they gain-- you know, they gain in terms of popularity with their friends, they gain a sense of belonging, they feel important, they feel special. The dealers make money, even serve an apprenticeship in a career on the streets. So if we really want to tackle this problem in earnest, what we have to do is give our kids healthy alternatives to drug abuse. And that means making it possible for them to feel important, good about themselves, make some money, have some hope for the future without getting high.
TERENCE SMITH: Professor, in your first answer you used the word "challenge." You said -
JACK LEVIN: That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: -- that these ads might actually throw down some sort of challenge to young people.
JACK LEVIN: Definitely.
TERENCE SMITH: Explain what you mean by that.
JACK LEVIN: Well, you know, let's look at what the ratings on motion pictures have done. And now those same ratings are being used on television programs: Forbidden fruit. There are many ten-year-old kids who will not go to a motion picture that isn't R rated. Well, exactly the same thing is happening in the arena of illicit drugs. And there are too many rebellious teenagers who will take up the challenge.
You know, I remember years ago when -- when Mikey on the Life Cereal commercials was said to have died when he mixed Pop Rocks with some kind of carbonated beverage. Well, there were youngsters all over the country who were bragging at that they did the same thing. And they would mix Pop Rocks with some Coca-Cola or something in front of their friends. They became instant Evil Knievels. We are doing the same thing with drugs. We are making our teenagers take up a challenge that they might not have taken up otherwise.
TERENCE SMITH: You noticed one of the ads actually depicted an adult addict using drugs and having an effect on his family. Effective with you?
JACK LEVIN: Not at all. You know, I think you have to understand that -- that the drug -- the drug problem has increased over the period of the last few years. I don't think it's a coincidence that the children of the baby boomers are now in their teens and they're the drug offenders that we're trying to reach. They know about their parents. They know that many of these mommies and daddies grew up during the 60's and early 70's when we almost legalized illicit drugs like marijuana because it became kind of middle class and respectable. And what happened to their own parents? Well, you know, most of them matured and mellowed out and they're not taking drugs anymore. So we've got the wrong kind of role models here. We need to be a little more realistic in reaching our children.
TERENCE SMITH: So is it your notion that you can't actually scare young people away from drugs, that you have to take another approach?
JACK LEVIN: I think you can scare adults. In fact, I know you can scare adults. This fear-arousing cigarette -- anti-cigarette smoking campaign clearly worked. But with kids you have to take an entirely different approach. You have to understand that what kids need is supervision, guidance, encouragement, support from adults. We have to recognize that drug abuse is a symptom. It is a problem in its own right, there's no question. But it's also a symptom of alienation and disenfranchisement and that's where we ought to be putting $1 billion, into the economic resources needed in order to enhance the lives of our youngsters so they don't want to get high all the time.
TERENCE SMITH: Professor, this is stage three of a very costly campaign. Do you, as a student of this, see any evidence of attitudinal change among the young in this country about drugs?
JACK LEVIN: Well, results of some studies show clearly that our youngsters are paying attention to this advertising campaign. And they think that they are experiencing some kind of change in their attitudes. But keep in mind that this is a temporary change at best. You know, in the long run, drug abuse will probably be reduced among our teenagers, just as we have made some inroads into the problem of juvenile crime over the last few years.
But it's going to have nothing to do with this advertising campaign. It's going to have everything to do with the possibility of bringing back adults, putting them back into the lives of our youngsters, not asking our children to raise themselves, giving them good role models, adult supervision, after-school programs, community centers and some spiritual guidance. That will do it.
TERENCE SMITH: Okay, thank you very much, Professor.
JACK LEVIN: Sure.
TERENCE SMITH: Now, to Barry McCaffrey, director of the Office of National
Drug Control Policy. His office is administering the program as such.
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Good to be here.
TERENCE SMITH: What did you think of those comments and those criticisms of the ads, as just presented?
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Well, I think I couldn't agree more that the heart and soul of it -- you look at the cohort of young people age 12 to 17, 80 percent of them have never touched an illegal drug. The problem is when they leave the sixth grade and the DARE program, they're essentially drug free, they encounter it during their middle school years. By the time they're seniors in high school, about one out of four are past-month drug users. Now, how do you get them to stop using drugs? You change their attitudes and their attitudes are primarily changed by their parents, pediatricians, coaches, the home room teacher, religious leaders.
So, at the heart and soul of it, I do believe that it's not only a school-based model but it's also what are they doing between 3 and 7 PM, which is why we argue for the Boys and Girls Clubs and the YMCA. So, in that sense, I think the professor is quite right. Now, look, what we're doing with the ad campaign, with less than 1 percent of the federal counter drug budget, we're going to talk to 90 percent of America's children and their parents four times a week. We got out there and we tested it, and phase two nationwide, we've got some pretty good numbers that indicate that this program is seen, they are aware of it, it is compelling. What we did today, the President released our fully integrated final campaign.
And what we're going to do, we're going to talk to children in 102 different media markets. We're going to be using 11 languages. And we're going to have a message that's gone through a behavioral science expert panel, that it's scientifically based. We're going to evaluate it very carefully. We're going to attempt to talk to adult mentors, parents, as well as adolescents. We know it's going to have an impact. Partnership for Drug Free America has ten years of pretty solid data. Children do listen. That's probably the one place where I disagree with the professor. Kids want to hear people they love and respect and trust who will give them a message based on their own maturity.
TERENCE SMITH: What did you think of the professor's notion that some of these ads could actually throw down a gauntlet of challenge to kids to rebel against authority and adults by what they see?
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Well, you know, as a father of three former adolescents, I couldn't agree more. Kids go through a rebellious period, adolescence is their duty to be annoying for a few years. But, I mean, that line of logic would argue them that we wouldn't tell them, don't drive drunk, don't shoplift, don't engage in unprotected, premarital sex. I mean, there's a whole series of things that, of course, we owe our students, our employees, our family members, our friends, a mutual re-enforcement that getting involved in pot, alcohol and inhalants, as well as met amphetamines, and other drugs is simply devastating to your educational opportunities, to your personal safety, to your risk of becoming pregnant.
You know, I see these kids all the time. Look, most of us don't use drugs in America. Unfortunately, 6 percent of the country does. And the professor is also correct, there are really only two dimensions of the problem we're worried about; four million chronic addicts like the dad who is an addict, he's my dad, he's my brother. The other problem was children. You got to talk to children, if you can get them to stay off drugs until the time they're around 18, they'll never have a drug abuse problem in their life. And that's what the ad campaign is going to try and do.
TERENCE SMITH: I read the report that you released today. And it seems clear that you're getting some notice, some attention --
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Sure.
TERENCE SMITH: -- among young people. How do you measure success, though, in terms of affecting and ultimately changing attitude?
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Well, actually we were sort of surprised. The phase two evaluation also showed that we affected attitudes rather than just simply being aware of the message. We put together a rather elaborate series of evaluation measures; National Institute of Drug Abuse Dr. Allen Leshner will run an independent evaluation. We did it on phase two and had to revise some of the messages. So I think we have to listen to our feedback loop, we have to make sure they're scientifically credible. It is not based sheerly on scare tactics. It's a very carefully calibrated approach to talk to adults and their adolescent children about the realities of drug abuse.
TERENCE SMITH: You say it's not based on scare tactics and yet there is a scare element in some of those ads.
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Well, you have to actually -- you have to talk to young people, for that matter adults, in terms of frame of reference that makes sense to them. The professor is right. You don't try and persuade people to not smoke marijuana by saying correctly you're at high risk from a carcinogenic substance 30 years from now dying of lung cancer. You can say, however, look, you may get killed in a car wreck, you may get pregnant, you're vulnerable to assault and you'll look stupid to your friends. And those messages, delivered by people like Andy McDonald, the skateboarding champion, are pretty darn credible. We're confident. Look, young people don't have problems, adults have problems. And what we owe them is a consistent, coherent, anti-drug use message.
TERENCE SMITH: The challenge, I suppose, is to somehow make drug use seem uncool.
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Yes.
TERENCE SMITH: Among the young. In other words, effect the image, effect the attitude.
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Sure. I think we have to put this in historical context. I like to listen to Professor David Musta up at Yale University, who is one of our nationally ranked authorities on the history of drug abuse in America. What happens is you look back at 1979, we had 14 percent of the country using drugs on a past-month basis. It's dropped to 6 percent. If we continue with a balanced strategy, which the President has allowed Janet Reno and Donna Shalala, and Dick Riley and I and others to put together, if we stay at it over time, we believe you can reduce drug abuse in America to below 3 percent. And you and I are going to be a lot happier in America when we do that. Remember, this is 52,000 dead a year and $110 billion of damage. It explains half the people behind bars have compulsive drug and alcohol problems.
TERENCE SMITH: General, I wonder, you've been leading the so-called war on drugs for some time now. I wonder if your attitudes have evolved, if you have come to conclude that some things work and some things don't. And if so, what they are.
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Well, let me, if I may, start off with a metaphor you use. Here I come 32 years in the armed forces dealing with young people, we've argued to do away with a metaphor of the war on drugs. I think it's much more useful to our conceptual organization to talk about the metaphor of cancer. When you start talking about that, a cancer affecting American communities, then you start getting the role of prevention, of education. You understand that some people become addicted and require treatment. And when they have a setback, a relapse, we don't write them off, we go back again to try and keep their life employed, dignified and healthy.
We've tried to advance this notion, look, let's understand the biggest investment we can make is not in the prison system, which costs us $36 billion a year, but to get on the front end of this problem and recognize that every addicted teenager costs the country probably a couple of million dollars over their lifetime in impact on the health care system, criminal justice, et cetera. That's what we're doing with this ad.
One of the things, if you'll allow me to suggest it, the ads not only talk to youth and their adult mentors about attitudes, they also try and compel action. So an awful lot of these ads, three of the ones you showed were the old ads. In September when we go into the final integrated phase, there will be 1-800 numbers, there will be home page to type up so you can get information or more importantly so can you get involved in a community coalition. There's no national drug problem in America. There are only a series of community drug epidemics.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. General McCaffrey, thank you very much.
BARRY MC CAFFREY: Good being with you, Terence.
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