Eye On Boise

Researcher: Meth decline not linked to ad campaign in Montana

A new study concludes that a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to deter youths from trying methamphetamines has failed to speed up a long-standing decline in the drug's use, the Associated Press reports. Economics researcher D. Mark Anderson of the University of Washington said Tuesday that abuse of the drug already was on the decline because of more aggressive law enforcement before the high-profile Montana Meth Project began in 2005. Identical programs have since been launched in seven other states: Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, Hawaii and Georgia; click below for a full report from AP reporter Matthew Brown.

Researcher: Meth decline not linked to campaign
By MATTHEW BROWN, Associated Press Writer

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A new study concludes that a multimillion-dollar advertising campaign to deter youths from trying methamphetamines has failed to speed up a long-standing decline in the drug's use.

Economics researcher D. Mark Anderson of the University of Washington said Tuesday that abuse of the drug already was on the decline because of more aggressive law enforcement before the high-profile Montana Meth Project began in 2005.

Identical programs have since been launched in seven other states: Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, Hawaii and Georgia.

Using billboards and other advertisements that link meth abuse to teen prostitution, crime, self-injury and death, the campaign has been trumpeted as a success by many politicians and law enforcement officials.

It was started by software billionaire Tom Siebel and has cost about $50 million to date, including $13 million in Montana, said Nitsa Zuppas, executive director of the Siebel Foundation. Funding has come from both private and government sources.

But Anderson's study in the September issue of the Journal of Health Economics calls into question whether the advertising money is being well spent.

Anderson compared Montana meth usage trends between 1999 and 2009 with trends in neighboring states and the nation.

"When I control for the fact that meth has not only been decreasing in Montana over a long time period but also pretty much everywhere else, I find no effect from the project," he said.

That conclusion attracted quick criticism from campaign supporters, including former Montana U.S. Attorney Bill Mercer, who said arrests of meth dealers held steady through most of the last decade until the ad campaign reduced demand for the drug.

Montana Meth Project director Bill Slaughter faulted Anderson's conclusions and said Anderson had failed to consider drops in meth-related crime and workplace use of the drug by adults.

"(Anderson) takes a couple of points of comparison and concludes the meth project has not had an impression," Slaughter said.

Supporters also argued that the decline in meth abuse has accelerated since the campaign was launched. Between 1999 and 2005, the number of youths reporting they had used meth fell 39 percent. Between 2005 and 2009, the drop was 63 percent.

However, a closer examination reveals that the change in percentages was in part a function of the number of youths taking meth: As that number got lower, the same pace of decline yielded a more dramatic percentage drop. But the actual change was identical in both time periods.

From 1999 to 2005, the percentage of Montana youths reporting meth use fell from 13.5 percent to 8.3 percent — a 5.2 percent change. From 2005 to 2009, it fell to 3.1 percent — another 5.2 percent change.

Anderson said he used the same data referenced by Slaughter to reach his conclusions, the biennial Youth Risk Behavior Survey from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The strides in prevention touted by the Meth Project's supporters, he said, do not stand up from a statistical standpoint.

"If I had found the meth project had an effect, that's what would have been reported," he said. "I just wanted to know if this anti-drug campaign worked and I found that it didn't."

Similar concerns have been raised about a drug prevention program that began in the 1980s, Drug Abuse Resistance and Education. Also known as DARE, it is now employed by schools across the country despite multiple studies over the past two decades that said it yielded little or no benefit.

The findings on the Montana Meth Project also are in line with work done by an Australian researcher. David Erceg-Hurn, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Western Australia, said in 2008 that the Meth Project had distorted its successes by emphasizing positive numbers.

Erceg-Hurn found that after six months of exposure to the ads, there was an increase in the percentage of teens who said using methamphetamine was not a risky behavior or who strongly approved of regular meth use.

An advertising expert who reviewed Anderson's study said it appeared to be sound. Henry Saffer, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, said the comparison of meth use between states provided a "good empirical framework" to conclude the campaign was ineffective.

Saffer added that "viscerally negative" messages like those used by the Meth Project can be strong deterrents. But he added that the ads must be seen by their target audience to work.

"Just because there are ads, doesn't mean the project will sell," said Saffer, who is also a professor of economics at Kean University in New Jersey.

Zuppas, with the Siebel foundation, said surveys done by the Meth Project show the campaign is reaching the vast majority of residents in states where the ads have run for at least two years.

A survey from Idaho in late 2009 revealed 85 percent of youths and adults had seen or heard an anti-meth ad during the last month, she said.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press.




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Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Russell covers Idaho news from the state capitol in Boise and writes the Eye on Boise blog.

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