There’s no denying the federal government’s new anti-drug TV ad tells a disturbing story. A freshly scrubbed adolescent in her well-appointed bedroom looks like she might be about to relax with a couple of Justin Bieber tunes. Instead, an eerie soundtrack starts up. “One, two, kicked out of school,” sings a hollow, girlish voice straight out of a horror-movie trailer. “Three, four, snort some more.” Soon she’s trashing the room, then randomly snipping off some of her own hair, and finally scratching at the angry needle marks on her forearm. “Five, six, need my fix.” It’s a relief when the spooky carousel music stops and a calming adult narrator advises kids to check out Health Canada’s DrugsNot4Me website.
The ad, which is called “Mirror,” was launched on Nov. 17 by Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq. Her department is spending $1.06 million to make the spot so ubiquitous on teen-oriented TV that two-thirds of 13- to 15-year-olds are expected to see it by next March. The Conservatives also hope it carries a message for their mothers and fathers. “To Canadian parents,” Aglukkaq said, “we’re on your side, and you have our support in helping your kids say no to drugs.” Few would argue with that goal, of course, but researchers and front-line doctors who work with teen addicts are critical of key elements of the strategy.
Asked if ad campaigns are often effective at discouraging drug abuse among young people, Tim Stockwell, director of the Centre for Addiction Research of British Columbia, said, “They don’t have a good track record.” Is it sensible to try to reach all young teens with the same message about the grave danger of hard drugs? Not according to Elizabeth Saewyc, research director of the McCreary Centre Society, a Vancouver non-profit group that studies youth health issues, who said, “I would spend the money focusing on teens at greatest risk.” And what about the fact that the DrugsNot4Me campaign doesn’t even mention teen drinking? “That’s one huge omission,” said Dr. Karen Leslie, a pediatrician who heads the adolescent substance-abuse program at Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children.
Aglukkaq declined requests for an interview. However, she touched on the thinking behind “Mirror” in a news release. “The ad focuses on the harmful physical and social effects of drugs,” it says, “and shows youth how experimenting with them can ultimately lead to lifelong addiction.” But trying to get through to kids with alarming anti-drug warnings is a questionable tactic. Health Canada’s own report Preventing Substance Abuse Problems Among Young People—A Compendium of Best Practices advises against it. “Fear-arousing messages accompanied by incorrect or exaggerated information are not effective,” says the 2001 study, “and can generate skepticism, disrespect and resistance toward any advice on substance use or other risk behaviour.”
“Mirror” is clearly meant to arouse fear, but whether its message is “incorrect or exaggerated” is a matter of interpretation. A kid who sees it might reasonably draw the conclusion that any teen—even the outwardly prosperous and healthy girl depicted in the ad—is at risk of spiralling into a junkie nightmare. But that’s a rare scenario. “There are going to be a small number—and it’s a very small number—who come from what looks like a circumstance of complete advantage, and then they end up developing some drug problems,” Saewyc says. “That’s not the norm.”
The norm, she and other experts agree, is that teens who slide into substance abuse fall into high-risk categories. Many suffer from some mental disorder, or have a parent who’s an alcoholic or drug addict, or have been physically or sexually abused—or all three. Being lesbian, gay or bisexual also puts a teen at higher risk. So do childhood traumas or family disruptions. Leslie says prevention efforts should target those endangered adolescents. “In the work that we do, we certainly screen kids for risk factors,” she says, “and then reflect back to them, ‘Compared to another young person who doesn’t have these factors, you’re at higher risk.’ ”
For a campaign designed to reach virtually all young teens, the emphasis only on street drugs in “Mirror” and on the DrugsNot4Me website raises questions. “The whole campaign is focused on cannabis, mushrooms, heroin, cocaine; I don’t see alcohol,” says Saewyc. “You would think if they are targeting drug use they’d mention the drug most commonly used by adolescents, and that drug is alcohol—far and away more than any other illicit substance.” She argues that alcohol shouldn’t be put in a separate category. “There’s almost nobody who’s taking up cocaine who hasn’t already used alcohol,” Saewyc says. Stockwell notes that very early drinking, even in the preteen years, is a key warning sign for later drug abuse.
The good news is that drinking and drug use among teenagers seems to be declining. The Toronto-based Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s survey of Ontario students from Grade 7 to 12 found that 58.2 per cent used alcohol in 2009, down from 66 per cent in 1999. Over the same decade, those who had used cannabis at least once in the course of a year fell to 25.6 per cent from 28 per cent. The survey’s index of other illicit drugs showed use dropping to 10.1 per cent from 20.5 per cent. Very few young Canadians ever touch the most frightening drugs, like those snorted and injected by the girl in “Mirror.” In the Ontario survey, 0.7 per cent had tried heroin and 1.1 per cent crack cocaine.
Still, drugs remain deeply worrying to parents, and thus politically potent. The Conservatives make a point of using the DrugsNot4Me campaign to differentiate themselves from the Liberals in their attitude toward the problem. At the launch for “Mirror,” Tory MP Shelly Glover, a former Winnipeg police officer, repeatedly slammed Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff for favouring decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana. She cast Ignatieff’s position as a permissive wink to children. “It’s very disturbing,” Glover said, “as a parent, and as a police officer for almost 19 years, to hear the Opposition, in fact the Liberal leader, say to our children that it is okay to take marijuana in small doses.” Ignatieff is on the record urging students not to smoke marijuana.
The politics of anti-drug rhetoric don’t have much to do with helping troubled adolescents who drink heavily or resort to drugs. Stockwell says any government’s first priority, instead of running its own ads, should be “identifying and then restricting alcohol and tobacco advertising with a high profile among young people.” When it comes to talking about hard drugs, Saewyc suggests the distorted image in “Mirror” is a poor starting point. “I’m not sure it’s effective to suggest that anybody just by one use, or anybody just trying a drug, is likely to become an addict shooting up in the alleyway,” she said. “It’s problematic because it’s not accurate, but it also ignores the people who are at greatest risk.”