This week the Office of National Drug Control Policy presented the "innovative and hard-hitting" Montana Meth Project with a "certificate of recognition" for its "significant role in helping to drive meth from the State." ONDCP Director John P. Walters called the project's over-the-top ads, which warn that methamphetamine use inevitably leads to addiction, prostitution, rotten teeth, oozing sores, and compulsive eyebrow plucking, "a key component of a balanced strategy against Meth" and "a critical prevention campaign that keeps Montana's young people safe from the dangers of Meth." The project bragged that the spots, which have been saturating Montana's airwaves since last fall, "have gained nationwide attention for their uncompromising approach."
But not, alas, for their effectiveness. The Montana Meth Project's own survey data, released in April, indicate that, after six months of exposure to the ads, teenagers and young adults were, if anything, less likely to believe that using meth once or twice poses a "great" or "moderate" risk. The same goes for using meth "regularly." Meanwhile, the share of teenagers who thought using meth regularly posed "no risk" increased from 3 percent to 8 percent.
The project's report buried these numbers (see the tables on page 56) and instead highlighted increases in perceptions of specific risks. But there's no evidence the campaign has had an effect on behavior. As the ONDCP itself notes, CDC survey data indicate meth use among Montana teenagers has been falling since 1999, six years before the Montana Meth Project launched its campaign.
The sharp drug policy reporter Jessie McQuillan took a skeptical look at the campaign earlier this year in the Missoula Independent. Among other things, she notes experts' skepticism about ads that try to scare teenagers away from drugs with exaggerated claims, which have the potential to backfire.
It's appropriate, in a sense, that the ONDCP is honoring an alarmist ad campaign whose own evaluations indicate that it's ineffective, since the ONDCP has spent more than $1 billion in taxpayer money on its own hyperbolic anti-drug ads, with nothing to show for it. But who is going to give John Walters a certificate?