The Rudd government announced another advertising campaign to ‘confront illicit drug use’ last night. Their media release states that:
Too many young Australians don’t understand the very real and dangerous impacts of taking or using illegal drugs
Their ‘new’ campaign will tackle this perceived lack of knowledge by using graphic images that emphasise the damaging effects drugs have. Young people need to ‘face facts’ about the risks involved in drug use.
I have numerous problems with this announcement.
- This is not a new campaign. Howard’s Tough on Drugs campaign has been on the go for many years with the same concepts and ideas.
- Social marketing campaigns like this are not informed by credible evidence. The National Drug Research Institute’s Prevention Monograph, a report commissioned by the Department of Health and Ageing themselves, found limited evidence to support the effectiveness of social marketing campaigns in reducing or preventing drug use and associated harms. Some studies even find such campaigns may lead to increased drug use through curiosity or reactance. Their most likely outcome is to have little influence on drug use decisions.
- These campaigns seem to be designed more for showing the general voting public that the government is ‘doing something’ about drug use. It seems no accident that this announcement and action comes in an election year.
- Assuming that young Australians don’t understand the dangers of drug use is unfair. This assumption should be tested. Research suggests that young people do understand and acknowledge the risks they are taking, yet they still choose to use drugs. Until the government can accept that choosing to use drugs can be a logical, informed decision, they will miss their mark in trying to engage young drug users.
- The Department of Health and Ageing needs to learn how to interpret statistics accurately!
Two prevalence estimates are compared across time by the Department to support their action in ‘tackling illicit drug use’. They appear to be drawn from the National Drug Strategy Household Survey series. The first read:
The proportion of recent regular ecstasy users who use weekly or more often has risen from 0.8 per cent in 1998 to 17.3 per cent in 2007.
I traced these figures back to their sources in the NDSHS reports and found that these figures refer to teenagers aged 14 to 19, and that the 1998 estimate was based on such small numbers that the estimate should be used with caution. The second reads:
There is also a disturbing trend in the increased ecstasy use by young females aged between 14-19 which is up from 4.7 per cent in 2004 to 6 per cent in 2007.
The table this comparison is taken from in the NDSHS 2007 report shows the increase is not statistically significant. That is, there is no disturbing trend. It is, in fact, hard to find ‘disturbing trends’ in the NDSHS series. Most drug use estimates are decreasing or steady. Whoever was charged with finding these disturbing trends to fit this media release has capitalised on the fact that most people who read it won’t know its source and how to access and interpret the original data.
I recall the Rudd government talking about its plans to use evidence-based policies on drugs and health issues more generally. This campaign is just more of the same. I guess drug policy misses out again when it comes to evidence-based policy.
This post can also be found on betweenthelines.org.au.