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Home > Research Articles > What works best for teen drug prevention - scare tactics or good news?

Daily Herald - Chicago

Sunday, November 10, 2002

(Daily Herald - Chicago)

It's a different strategy in the drug war.

You're cool if, like most teens your age, you don't try drugs.

Some experts say more young people might think twice about using drugs if they honestly believed most of their peers weren't either. Others believe youths will be less likely to use drugs if they are scared out of it.

Which approach is best is at the heart of a debate among some prevention experts these days.

Members of the Illinois Drug Education Alliance and other experts say focusing on how many people don't use drugs can make a difference. It won't stop all drug use, but it takes away the "everybody's-doing-it" excuse, they say.

Others, including federal drug czar John Walters and U.S. Rep. Mark Kirk, a Highland Park Republican, say it's time for a more in- your-face approach. They are linking drug use to terrorism and individual responsibility.

"If you want Sept. 11 to happen again, buy drugs. That's where (the money) goes," Kirk told a group of Wheeling middle school students recently.

Fear-provoking comments like that are making a comeback - to the dismay of some drug prevention educators.

"I wouldn't advocate that," said Melissa Garrison, a prevention coordinator for Rosecrance, a Rockford drug treatment center, adding that research has indicated scare tactics are not successful.

A generation ago, television commercials showing an egg frying in a pan with the slogan "This is your brain on drugs" were one way adults tried to scare young people away from drugs.

Now a new round of TV commercials connects drug use and the funding of terrorism. Walters, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, is promoting them as he tours the nation talking about drug prevention education.

While there was a reported decline in Chicago-area emergency room visits attributed to Ecstasy, marijuana and heroin use from 2000 to 2001, the National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that party drugs, such as GHB and LSD, are gaining popularity.

The Daily Herald found heroin and club drugs contributed to at least 13 suburban deaths during 2000 and 2001. The death rate of suburban teens and young adults from heroin this year seems to be similar or increasing.

A University of Michigan survey indicated that marijuana use by eighth-graders doubled what it was a decade ago. Last year, 20 percent said they had used marijuana, compared to 10 percent in 1991. And, in 2001, 5 percent of those eighth-graders reported using Ecstasy, 4 percent used cocaine and nearly 2 percent had used heroin at least once, the survey indicated.

In order to get young people to stop, they need to know that using drugs will be extremely harmful to their bodies, Garrison said. Knowing that people are dying from drugs, for instance, might make a difference, she said.

Some substance abuse experts aren't so sure. "I'm seeing a resurgence in scare tactics, and it scares me a lot because they are ineffective," said Peter Palanca, regional vice president of Hazelden-Chicago, which specializes in substance abuse treatment and recovery.

That approach, along with using recovering addicts to talk about their lives, is proving less effective because young people tune them out as repetitive, Palanca said.

But those tactics definitely work better than the "Just say no" campaign some students have been getting for years, said Sheena Arora, a senior at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire.

Palanca believes the best strategy is to tell teens about positive lifestyles and show them that most of their peers are choosing that path. "What one perceives to be true is what formulates one's reality. What we need to be doing is altering the kids' reality," he said.

Members of IDEA used that approach last week to celebrate Red Ribbon Week in Illinois, an annual drug-free campaign.

"The majority of Illinois youth are not using drugs," said Paul Peronne, organizer of Illinois' Red Ribbon Week. "You always hear the negative. You don't hear the number of kids who didn't take drugs."

Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, considered a pioneer among colleges in shifting attitudes about alcohol use, has seen a decline in binge drinking.

Officials attribute it, in part, to posters they created based on the idea that most students don't abuse alcohol.

But Arora said drug education also should focus on parents, many of whom she said are oblivious to the problem.

"I know people who do drugs and have alcohol problems and get high and get drunk every weekend," said Arora, president of her senior class. "It's so close to home, it hurts."