This week, as part of its effort to revive the Reagan administration’s war on drugs, the Trump administration released a series of new ads aimed at opioid users.
The ad campaign, called “the Truth About Opioids,” was created by the Truth Initiative, along with the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Ad Council. Media partners including Facebook, Google, YouTube and Amazon have agreed to donate roughly $30 million worth of airtime and ad space to run the 30-second spots, according to Ad Council CEO Lisa Sherman.
But according to some experts, these ads are “misleading,” “stigmatizing,” and “wildly off target.” They say these ads double down on harmful stereotypes first seen in the “just say no” message championed by President Ronald Reagan and First Lady Nancy Reagan.
These new ads feature real-life stories from opioid users who went to extreme lengths to get their painkiller prescriptions refilled. In one ad, a man breaks his own hand with a hammer. In others, we see people slamming their arm in a door, running their car into a dumpster, and crushing themselves under a car—all to get more pain pills. Each ad’s subject makes the same statement: “I didn’t know they’d be this addictive. I didn’t know how far I’d go to get more.”
The videos are, in a word, disturbing:
While these images are extremely visceral, it’s unclear what message viewers are meant to take from them. And while the campaign’s intent may be noble, the ads seem more than a little voyeuristic: meant to inspire a mixture of pity and revulsion from people who aren’t struggling with drug use, rather than offer comfort or hope to those who are.
In addition to the classic “this is your brain on drugs” ads of the 1980s, this series also mirrors the message of the “Meth: Not even once” ads from the 2000s. The underlying message is a terrifying one: if you take one hit, you will become irrevocably addicted. This claim is misleading at best. It’s important to keep the facts straight when talking about drug use, even if those facts may not conform to a scared-straight line of messaging.
By raising fears about how addictive drugs are, these videos inadvertently reinforce the stigma around drug use, making it seem irresponsible and something to be deeply ashamed of. The effect of such stigma is to push drug users further into the shadows, rather than connect them with resources that could help.
Stefanie Jones is the director of audience development at the Drug Policy Alliance. She says the ads do nothing to help defray the harmful stigma associated with drug use.
“It’s disingenuous and misleading to take one extreme account—or four, as it were—and present that as the average experience,” she says. “We need to be unbiased. We need to be non-judgmental. And this sort of emotional approach flies in the face of all of that.”
Daniel Raymond, the deputy director of planning and policy at the Harm Reduction Coalition, calls the ad campaign “the 21st century version of the egg-in-the-frying-pan” PSA.
“We don’t need shock value to fight the overdose crisis; we need empathy, connection, and hope for people struggling with opioids,” Raymond writes in an email. “The White House missed an opportunity to combat stigma and stereotypes, portraying people who use opioids as irrational and self-destructive.”
Jones points out that, in each of the video’s stories, pain medication was necessary—at first. Which gets into the real underlying problem that these ads do not address: Why did these people continue to receive painkillers past the point when they should have been taking them?
An investigation from the Charleston Gazette-Mail earlier this year found that pharmaceutical companies pumped 780 million painkillers into the state of West Virginia over the past six years alone. Between 2006 and 2016, drug wholesalers flooded one West Virginia town of 2,900 people with more than 20.8 million opioids—amounting to 7,172 pills for every man, woman, and child.
The message these ads send lays the blame at the feet of people injuring themselves to get their hands on more pills, while the people supplying and prescribing those pills are left off-screen.
Rather than releasing scare-mongering videos or threatening low-level drug dealers with the death penalty, the Trump administration could take a harder look at the larger, structural problems causing the opioid epidemic.
“This is just such an unfortunate way to do it. I don’t imagine it being effective at all,” Jones said. “It’s going to cause as many or more problems as it solves.”
This problem won’t get any better until the government starts treating irresponsible pharmaceutical companies with the same scrutiny it applies to a college kid selling weed out of his dorm room.
The answer to a problem as systemic as opioid addiction will come through nuanced, empathetic and fact-based advocacy—not gawking at someone hitting themselves with a hammer.