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Sending a meth message, does it work?

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This image is from the Hawaii Meth Project's graphic and attention- getting "Not Even Once" ad campaign, now in its second year.
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now in its second year.
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Meth Project backers, including those from Hawaii who came up with the graphic ads, hail results — but doubt is rising over lasting success.

For the second year, graphic television ads showing actors portraying pathetic and physically damaged drug addicts remind people about the danger of methamphetamine — but does the scary message work?

"It does not prevent future use. They’re not effective," Jeanne Y. Ohta, executive director of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii, says of the frightening TV commercial prepared by the Hawaii Meth Project.

The project and similar programs in six other states are patterned after the Montana Meth Project, launched in 2005 and hailed by White House drug czar John Walters a year later as "a model for prevention efforts nationwide."

Cindy Adams, executive director of the Hawaii Meth Project, says recent studies questioning the effectiveness of the Montana project and those that have followed are mistaken.

Those studies maintain that the decline in meth use stretches back a decade or more, rendering the recent projects as useless or close to it.

The rate of meth use among Montana high school students declined after the meth project was launched. However, accounting for the downward trend of meth use apparent at the end of the 1990s rendered the project’s effect "small and statistically insignificant," reported Montana native D. Mark Anderson, Ph.D. candidate at the University of Washington, in a study published in the current Journal of Health Economics.

Much of American society was aware of the dangers of methamphetamine long before Montana and other states began their projects, Anderson said in an interview.

"This information was being disseminated and spread amongst social networks, peer groups, families, whatever, well before the national campaign took place," Anderson said. "If this campaign had come into place as soon as meth was introduced, maybe it would have had a more noticeable effect."

A 2006 federal law that required medicines containing pseudoephedrine, an ingredient in meth, to be moved behind a counter and limited a person’s purchase of it is believed to have contributed to the decline in meth use. Also, a study published last month in the scientific journal Addiction showed that Mexico’s recent efforts to control the manufacture of methamphetamine has resulted in a drop in meth treatment admissions in neighboring Texas. Most crystal meth available in Hawaii is believed to have been produced in Mexico and California.

Illustrating the issue, Anderson included a graphic showing that Montana’s decline in meth use before and after its Meth Project was launched was similar to the declines in neighboring Wyoming, which launched its Meth Project in 2008, and North Dakota, which has no entity similar to the projects. Hawaii’s trend, added to the graphic on this page, is similar leading up to its Meth Project launching last year after the survey was conducted.

Success or failure is measured by surveys of use by young people. Montana high school students admitting to at least one past meth use in their lives dropped from 8.3 percent in 2005 to 4.6 percent in 2007, "an absolute drop of only 3.7 percent and a relative drop of 45 percent (3.7 is 45 percent of 8.3)," Australian psychologist David Erceg-Hurn noted in the December 2008 journal Prevention Science. "However, it is the ’45 percent’ drop that is highlighted on the Meth Project website and in media releases."

In describing the pre-project problem on media releases and on its website, Hawaii Meth Project cited a 2007 biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey showing that 7.3 percent of Hawaii high school sophomores admitted having used meth, "up 87 percent from 2005," indicating an absolute rise from 3 percent.

Adams maintains that "rates of decline" are more telling than "percentage point declines" when comparing survey numbers in state comparisons.

That 2007 survey result was the only one in the past decade indicating that admitted meth use among Hawaii high school youths increased from two years previously, from 4.3 percent to 4.5 percent, mainly because of the sophomores’ responses. The survey indicates admitted previous meth use by 5.2 percent of freshmen, 1.1 percent of juniors and 3.2 percent of seniors.

Hawaii’s 2009 survey result shows previous meth use by high school students declined to 3.9 percent. Individual class records indicating how the survey of the 2007 sophomores differed from the one taken in their senior year of 2009 were unavailable.

Ohta says the project’s TV commercials are misleading. When viewers, especially young people, look at the commercials, they will say, "I know someone who uses meth, and they don’t look like that," Ohta said. "So it loses credibility with a certain population of students."

The ads also portray meth addicts as being violent, losing their teeth or having skin problems, but those conditions are not always the case, Ohta said. "So what happens is that at school, teachers look at students and they say, ‘My students don’t look like that so we don’t have a meth problem.’"

Adams said the conditions portrayed on the ads reflect the real effects of meth use.

"Not everybody is going to look like the meth addicts that we’re showing in the ads," Adams said, "but I know meth addicts to look like that, and I’ve had people in recovery come up to me and tell me that is what they look like, or that is what their uncle looked like before he committed suicide, or that their daughter lost a tremendous amount of weight."

The Montana project was begun with private funds but in 2007 received $2 million from Montana’s legislature and $1.5 million in federal funds. The Hawaii Meth Project operates on $1 million yearly in private donations.

Adams said the project is not "standing alone" but works with other programs aimed at preventing illicit drug use and with counselors and law enforcement agencies.

"Everybody is working very diligently," she said.


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