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How Marketing Influences the Rise and Fall of Drug Use Amongst Youth

Two teens smoking a marijuana joint


Does advertising work to influence the use of drugs, alcohol or tobacco? Let’s look at how cigarette use has dwindled over the last several decades. Starting in the 1960s, advertising began to be used to reduce tobacco use and thereby save lives. In response, teen use between 1997 and 2013 dropped from 37% to 16%. Among adults, cigarette smoking dropped from 42.4% to 16.8%. The results may be slow but changes in tobacco advertising has definitely helped shrink these numbers.


(Use Risk Behavior Survey 1991-2013)


Exactly what factors contributed to this very positive outcome? Decades ago, tobacco advertising was removed from television and other media. Following that, many different anti-tobacco campaigns were conducted, in both schools and via television and other media, in an effort to make young people aware of the damaging effects of tobacco use. The numbers prove that these efforts were effective.


The Normalization of Marijuana


On the contrary, the purported health benefits and safety of marijuana have been promoted for the past few decades in conjunction with the legalization movement. On one hand, we spent millions of dollars reducing tobacco use but now marijuana advocates and their financiers are spending millions to promote the use of marijuana. Both cause physical damage, and some studies indicate that smoking marijuana can be much more harmful than tobacco smoke. Marijuana smoke contains much more of two known carcinogens, benzopyrene and benzanthracene, than a comparable quantity of unfiltered tobacco smoke. Also, one study after another is revealing that use of marijuana results in a whole multitude of psychological and emotional effects, including high incidence of psychosis.


Yet here we are with marijuana going mainstream, with big business jumping in at every turn. These businesses have a vested interest in proving the safety of marijuana and consumers are getting the message. And it’s advertising that’s getting the word out to both parents and youth. A surprising number of non-using parents are turning a blind eye to their children’s use of marijuana, feeling that the maybe there’s really nothing wrong with it. Youth in states with  legalized medical or recreational marijuana have the lowest perception of risk and the highest use rates.


Our youth have certainly gotten the message of marijuana’s alleged safety and benefits.


Alcohol at Every Turn


alcohol promotion phrasesAlcohol is one of the most destructive drugs and one of the biggest addiction­ problems ever. The  World Health Organization estimates that 3.3 million people die each year from alcohol-related causes whereas the UNODC 2014 World Health Report estimates there were 207,000 deaths from drug overdoses. It’s hard to deny the correlation to this and the false picture portrayed for decades through widespread advertising on TV, billboards and other media. From the 90’s commercials of “Spuds McKenzie” to recent Heineken ads paired up with a Nintendo game controller promoting it’s “Game Day”.


A survey conducted by the Drug Free Action Alliance with 8000 youth following Superbowl 2017, middle and high school students ranked  two beer commercials in the top five of the most remembered ads.  The effect of advertising on teen drinking is not new news as demonstrated by a 2016 study published by the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.


Not only do kids see this advertising in the media, they see alcohol promoted everywhere. Liquor stores have signs in their windows. Restaurants have neon signs promoting beer brands. Even grocery stores have reduced their food aisles to make room for more kinds of alcohol. Craft beers are the hot new trend with all kinds of inviting names and flavors and there are dozens of wine spritzers and other fruity and flavorful alcohol mixes.


While there have been efforts to monitor and curtail the advertisements that appeal to young people, there are no defining guidelines and therefore it is almost impossible to regulate. What can be done about it is to help young people become more aware of this influence and to make healthy choices.


Teenaged Kids Shooting Heroin?


We are now are faced with a heroin and opioid epidemic. At the turn of the millennium, the idea of young high school all-stars shooting heroin was a foreign concept. And yet here we are, less than two decades later, with heroin and opioid abuse out of control in many areas of the U.S. Where did this all start?


Let’s look at how the advertising of prescription drugs has exploded over the last two decades. Direct-to-consumer advertising of prescriptions drugs has been allowed for years, but it wasn’t until about 2002 that pharmaceutical companies really began to take advantage of this medium. At that same time, laws and regulations also became less restrictive.


From that point, we saw an upsurge in these ads on television, radio and print. Consider a child who was five years old in 2000, spending dozens of hours in front of the television each week, absorbing the message of pharmaceutical companies promoting the acceptability of their drugs. He, along with the majority of the American public, largely accepts that drugs are a solution for a multitude of issues they may be dealing with — insomnia, anxiety, worry, lack of energy or difficulty concentrating.  By the time he’s sixteen or seventeen, he thinks nothing of popping a few Oxycontin pills or a couple of bars of Xanax that a friend offers him.


It boils down to two simple concepts in their minds:


1) these drugs are safe because doctors prescribe them


2) everyone is taking them, so what’s the big deal?



young person buying bag of heroin


Most of us already know how this rolls forward. We saw a crackdown on the overprescribing of painkillers, which resulted in opioids becoming more expensive and harder to obtain on the street. Once addicted, a young person will do anything to get their hands on some form of opiate or opioid, if only just to “get well”. Along comes the drug dealer with an offer of heroin, much cheaper and in never-ending supply and now they are hooked.


Exposing the Lies


A key component of the Narconon drug prevention program has always been education on the use of advertising to make drugs and alcohol acceptable to youth. In our forty years working with kids, we’ve found that increasing their awareness of this influence is one of the strongest ways to steer them away from drug or alcohol abuse. No young person wants to be lied to, tricked or taken advantage of — but if they aren’t aware of power of advertising to change their attitudes toward drugs or alcohol, they can be fooled by it. Our video curriculum contains several segments that cover this exact message with accompanying lessons that increase awareness and expose the advertising influence for what it is.