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Meth Use: Everyone's Problem

Steve Pasierb is President and CEO of The Partnership for a Drug-Free America. In this interview, Pasierb talks about methamphetamine use in America and what kinds of prevention messages are effective in reducing its use.

The Partnership for a Drug-Free America consulted with the Montana Meth Project for six months in 2005, as the campaign was in the planning and development stages. The Partnership participated in some of the early research, and shared its expertise in applying a consumer marketing business model to a social health problem. Since 1986, the Partnership has been using marketing concepts to help reduce illicit drug abuse - an approach it refers to as "unselling drugs."

NOW: What kind of media are you using to target meth users? Why did you choose these in particular?

Steve Pasierb (SP): The Partnership uses television, radio, print and outdoor advertising to get our messages across as well a dedicated meth section of our website and new forms of digital media. Our national public service campaigns target teens and young adults with hard-hitting, credible meth prevention messages, and urge parents and concerned citizens to both learn about the dangers of meth and to spread the word, especially to kids.

Rather than targeting active meth users with advertising, we focus on friends and family of those in need of help for meth addiction, and we've created a whole campaign around the power of friends and family to help those addicted to meth seek treatment. But we've learned we have to go well beyond advertising. We designed a first-of-its-kind community mobilization program called Meth360 that teams up law enforcement and social services providers to deliver meth prevention presentations throughout local communities. Meth360 is running in 14 states, and reaching thousands of people, from school guidance counselors to real estate agents, utility workers, parents groups and hospital staff. Anyone who has a stake in the community's welfare —and that's everyone —needs to know about meth, and Meth360 helps get the word out and communities work together.

NOW: Is there a commonality among meth users or their lifestyles that allows you to focus your messages?

SP: An interesting aspect of this drug is that there is no typical meth user. Meth takes in a wide variety of people, both men and women, for multiple reasons. But whether it's a student mistakenly looking for more energy to stay up and study all night or a young mother hoping meth will help her lose a few pounds, or someone wanting to get high or wrecked, the commonality is that meth can wreak the same havoc on its users' lives, and on the lives of their friends and families.

We focus our meth messages by zeroing in on a few key realities that stand true across the board: that meth is dangerously addictive; that the drug harms communities and endangers those far beyond the user; that parents, mentors and other caregivers can help protect their kids from meth through education and active dialogue; and that there is hope for those who are in trouble with meth and need treatment.

NOW: How do you know if a particular campaign will be effective? What do you look for in an effective campaign?

"There is a longstanding myth that meth is untreatable and people addicted to meth are forever lost, and it's very important for people to understand that it's simply not true."

SP: There's no surefire way to tell if a campaign will be effective. The best we can do, like any other marketer, is to invest the time and resources necessary to research our target audience and test our approaches before a campaign goes to print or hits the airwaves. One of the challenges in doing this is that different messages may be effective with different audience segments. Some young adults, for instance, will respond to a "negative consequence" message about the risks of drug use, while others are more effectively influenced by a positive message communicating the benefits of drug avoidance or the possibility of treatment and recovery. The purpose of testing is to determine which messages work with which audience segments —and also to insure that messages have no unintended effects on the target audience. Ultimately, we want to create campaigns that —cumulatively, over time —influence the attitudes that drive behavior —and the evidence shows that over the past 20 years, when Partnership advertising has been strongly supported in the media, teen attitudes towards drugs, and their use of drugs, have moved in a favorable direction.

NOW: Have meth campaigns changed over time with changing social or culture patterns?

SP: Absolutely. When the Partnership first began working on the meth issue in Southern California in 1996, we focused mostly on the physical effects and negative consequences of using the drug. Today, as concern about meth has spread across the nation, there's more awareness also of the "secondhand" impact of meth. By that, I mean the drug's ability to drain community resources, endanger law enforcement, overwhelm local healthcare systems, and contaminate the environment. Another factor that commands attention in these campaigns is meth's devastating impact on innocent children caught up in other's use, dealing or cooking. Kids of meth users are often severely neglected and their home environments are toxic and dangerous. Foster care systems in affected states have been overwhelmed caring for kids taken from meth users, and their stories are a powerful illustration of the horrors of this drug.

Lastly, today's Partnership campaigns also include messages on meth treatment, which is critical. There is a longstanding myth that meth is untreatable and people addicted to meth are forever lost, and it's very important for people to understand that it's simply not true. Meth treatment does work. People are both getting well and getting their lives back in recovery.

NOW: How does a campaign targeting meth users differ from one targeting users of other drugs?

SP: Meth use has absolute, credible risks and negative consequences that are much more dramatic to communicate than say a drug like marijuana. Meth also has one unique quality that we view as an opportunity to reach a broader audience with our messages. That's the "secondhand" effect I mentioned earlier—the way meth impacts everyone in communities, even those who have never used the drug. When the Partnership launched its first national meth communications campaign, we targeted communities and concerned citizens. Much the same way that secondhand smoke helped rally people behind efforts to curb smoking, we believe that rallying communities is a powerful way to help stop the spread of meth. Our community outreach program, Meth360, is rooted in the concept that when meth is in a community, it's everyone's job to stop it. The response to the program has been outstanding.

NOW: Do you find that there's adequate attention being focused on meth addiction? Why or why not?

SP: Meth has drawn a huge amount of media attention over the past few years, and it's clearly on the radar. But some parts of the country have suffered much more than others. What's most important is ensuring that whatever attention is paid to meth results in people getting actionable facts. Parents need to know how truly dangerous meth is in order to have conversations with their kids about it; teens and young adults need the truth to understand that meth is a road they never want to go down. Communities who have implemented successful meth education programs have banded together to tackle the problem. A focus on potential solutions is so important and there needs to be more of that. There's always room for more attention to be paid to something as dangerous as methamphetamine, but we're heartened that through advertising and community outreach work, there seem to be more opportunities than ever to get the word out.

Steve Pasierb

About Steve Pasierb

Stephen J. Pasierb, MEd, joined the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in 1993 directing the State/City Alliance Program, and became president in October 2001. In November 2003, Steve was honored by the American Advertising Federation and elected to the Advertising Hall of Achievement. Now in its 20th year, the Partnership helps parents and caregivers effectively address drug and alcohol abuse with their children.

» Watch the anti-meth ads created by the Partnership

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