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The latest weapons

New antidrug ads aimed at young people stress how drug profits can support terrorism. But are the messages on target?

By SUSAN ASCHOFF, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published February 19, 2002


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Introduced during that most American of sporting events, the Super Bowl, and wrapped in the patriotism of the country's war on terrorists, a new ad campaign to stop kids from using drugs suggests that smoking dope is akin to murder.

But whether or not a 14-year-old will say no to a dime bag because the money paid could end up in the pockets of bombers remains to be seen.

The Office of National Drug Control Policy spent $3.4-million for two 30-second spots during the Feb. 3 football game, the largest single government ad purchase in U.S. history, to launch its new antidrug message. It links drug use at home with terrorist attacks here and abroad.

"To fight the terror inflicted by killers, thugs and terrorists around the world who depend on American drug purchases to fund their violence, we must stop paying for our own destruction and the destruction of others," drug czar John Walters, ONDCP director, said in a statement announcing the campaign. In addition to high-profile TV and print ads, it will tap teachers and celebrities as spokespeople and provide information at its Web site, www.theantidrug.com.

The new take on talking to kids about drugs reflects President Bush's single-minded pursuit of terrorists after the Sept. 11 attacks in New York and Washington, D.C. Bush has frozen suspect bank accounts in the United States and sent troops to Afghanistan to hunt Osama bin Laden.

The government says roughly half of the 28 international organizations designated as terrorist groups by the State Department get some funding from drug trafficking. Afghanistan's Taliban financed its government with taxes on the drug trade, it says, and bin Laden's network earned money by selling protection to traffickers.

The Super Bowl commercials designed to explain those connections were darkly mesmerizing, though a bit confusing. In one, a series of images showed the price tags of supplies purchased by terrorists: box cutters, $2; fake passports, $3,000; AK-47, $250. "Where do terrorists get their money?" it asked. "If you buy drugs, some of it might come from you."

In the other ad, teenagers who take drugs were portrayed as accomplices in the murder and torture of people in other countries. A child's claim that doing drugs doesn't hurt anyone else was eclipsed by confessions of culpability in global mayhem. "I helped kill a judge" by using drugs, says one scrubbed young face.

The theory is that middle and high school students who ignore messages threatening punishment or health risks -- they believe it will never happen to them -- will listen to an appeal to their patriotism and morality.

"It's a new argument," says ONDCP spokesman Tom Riley. "All the antidrug ads in the past have been inward-looking: They're bad for your mind. You'll hurt your parents." The message here, he says, is, "The money you spend can end up in the hands of some bad people."

In focus-group research for the campaign, as many as 60 percent of the participants ages 12 to 17 said they would be less likely to do drugs if they knew of the link between drugs and terrorism. About the same percentage of parents said that knowledge would help them talk to their kids about drug use, according to the ONDCP.

The connection between drugs and terrorism is not new. But post-Sept. 11, there is a broad audience willing to hear about it, says Riley. "I think now people care a whole lot more."

"This is just one more bullet in our arsenal," says Shirley Coletti of the ads. Coletti is president of Operation PAR, a substance-abuse treatment program in Pinellas County. "It got their attention. The only thing you can hope for (with any message) is that it opens the door to discussion."

Some experts counter that the ads are so political that they might close minds.

"I think kids appreciate honest messages. I think they see these as political rhetoric," says Wilson Palacios, an assistant professor of criminology at the University of South Florida who studies drug cultures.

Teenagers enrolled in PAR's residential program for long-term substance abuse found the Super Bowl ads disingenuous. One 17-year-old said that teenagers distrust authority and the government: Why would they do what Washington wants? Another believes the ads are meant to divert attention from the billions spent on the war in Afghanistan.

"I can't imagine many teenagers being interested in (terrorism) as a reason not to do drugs. With kids, the number one thing is peer pressure, wanting to be like everyone else," says Dr. Martha Brown, a psychiatrist who has worked with adolescent addicts and now evaluates professionals with addictions.

The day after the Super Bowl the Libertarian Party called the spots "dishonest and a waste of money." Antidrug efforts only drive up drug prices -- a support system for pushers, the party said in a press release.

In 1998, when millions were paid to the states under the legal settlement with tobacco companies, Florida considered the teenage psyche and how best to deliver it an antismoking message. The inclination to tell of tobacco's risks was quashed when research found young people already knew the danger: Danger, in fact, was a large part of smoking's appeal.

"Death is of complete unimportance to kids" because they consider themselves immortal, says Jeff Hicks, president of advertising agency Crispin, Porter & Bogusky in Miami. "And no one wants to be told what to do."

Instead the agency, in conjunction with the national American Legacy Foundation, created the $100-million "Truth" campaign, an in-your-face indictment of tobacco companies which tells kids they've been "played" for profits. "Truth" has proved to be one of the most successful public service campaigns ever produced.

In a spot currently airing in Florida, "Marlboro men" cowboys fill a classroom to learn Chinese as the text explains that when cigarette billboards were banned near U.S. schools, tobacco companies put the signs in school yards in China.

Teenagers "get very mad when they see the Marlboro men," says Hicks. "Youth are very empathetic to people who are suffering in the world."

The terrorists-and-drugs campaign may prove effective for the same reasons, he says.

Surveys show fewer of Florida's teenagers are using cocaine, heroin and LSD -- about 2 percent of 6th- through 12th-graders last year. But marijuana use is up. And the number of teens who tried ecstasy rose 20 percent last year and has increased 71 percent since 1999, the Partnership for a Drug Free America reported earlier this month.

The questions for the government, parents and others who want kids to stop using drugs are how do you reach them and will they be dissuaded from taking a "party" pill offered in a darkened dance club by the picture of a faraway terrorist, broke and running for the hills?

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