I’ve long been a critic of the claims made by the Montana Meth Project and a largely uncritical press in Montana that has given the Project enormous credit for reducing meth use in the state. There haven’t been a lot of people who agree with me on this point, so I was happy to see that an academic study by David Erceg-Hurn in the journal Prevention Science has reached the same conclusion. In fact, he argues, the Montana Meth Project may have made things worse:
The negative outcomes identified in the review include: following six months exposure to the MMP’s graphic ads, there was a threefold increase in the percentage of teenagers who reported that using meth is not a risky behaviour; teenagers were four times more likely to strongly approve of regular meth use; teenagers were more likely to report that taking heroin and cocaine is not risky; and up to 50% of teenagers reported that the graphic ads exaggerate the risks of using meth.
The Montana Meth Project is probably a well-intended, somewhat self-promoting effort to reduce drug use. I have no doubt that Tom Siebel believes in his program, but it flies in the face of years of research about drug prevention. Scare tactics and fear appeals might work in the short-term, but they are unlikely to impact adolescents over the long haul. The state ban on over the counter sale of cold medicine was a much more effective strategy than the millions spent on this program, ‘edgy’ as it has been.
What’s more troubling is the response we have seen from government officials and the media. Erceg-Hurn notes that the positive results that Legislators have been presented are inaccurate:
"Legislators have been provided with a ‘sugar-coated’ account of the program’s effectiveness," Erceg-Hurn said in an e-mail to the Tribune. "The ads do not appear to be anywhere near as effective as the Meth Project has claimed."
Despite this, the Attorney General’s office has been effusive in its praise for the MMP, crediting it almost exclusively for reductions in the use of the drug.
Montana’s media has responded with even more excessive praise, with dozens of editorials and articles lauding the program, almost always based on research conducted by the MMP itself. I don’t know which would surprise me less—another editorial about the amazing success of the Meth Project appearing in the next few days or the Lee Papers failing to mention this new research at all.
When millions of public dollars are at stake, we deserve better, from our elected officials and the media. It’d be so comforting to believe the simple narrative that’s been spun here—that this ad campaign has astonishingly broken all of the rules and reduced drug use, but America’s drug problem is anything but simple, and is going to require much more than easy answers, no matter how comforting.