Meth Madness

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The voice wafting over the airwaves is identified only as Jen, 15.

In the flat tone of someone who's seen it all and hated every minute, Jen describes first using crystal meth as an 11-year-old.

Later, while using, Jen got raped, but she didn't report it, didn't even seem to care. After all, her rapist provided her with more drugs.



"That's when I started selling my body for meth," Jen says. "I don't know anyone who's quit using meth after they tried it a couple times, or just once."

It's a theme that's repeated, again and again, in the radio and television advertisements from the Montana Meth Project. Don't do it once, or you'll get hooked.

Each ad's tag line drives the point home: "Meth: Not even once."

The $5.5 million campaign, developed and funded privately by a software billionaire, launched in Montana last fall. It's been hailed by media across the nation as a brilliant and bold solution to the nation's meth problem -- in the words of journalists from New York to Missoula, a "shockingly graphic," "powerful" set of words and images that's virtually saturated Montana's airwaves and which is sure to show big results.

Arizona's leaders, who have been struggling with this state's own meth problem, couldn't help but notice. And now a team led by Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard and Maricopa County Supervisor Don Stapley wants to use an estimated $5.7 million in government funds to run the Montana advertisements here.

Three Arizona officials, including Stapley, flew to Montana last week to meet with the project's leaders. While the money hasn't yet been appropriated, the deal seems ready to close almost solely on its own adrenaline.

"I just don't think we have time to waste," Goddard told the Arizona Republic in a story published April 17.

But once again, it seems as if local leaders are grasping desperately at a solution to the meth epidemic that may sound great, but doesn't actually hold up under scrutiny.

Last year it was the idea that restricting sales of cold medicine will dry up the state's meth problem. Similar laws have now been passed in 28 Arizona cities; there's no evidence that use has declined ("The New Meth," March 30).

And while prevention is, indeed, an important piece of any serious strategy to deal with meth use, seizing onto the Montana project is the latest example of expecting an easy solution for a complex problem.

At the time when Goddard made his remarks to the Republic last week, the Montana Meth Project had yet to release any serious statistical analysis.

But now the data is out. And the state senator who first made contact with staffers at the Montana project, John Huppenthal, R-Chandler, is now expressing serious doubts about a number of the ads and their focus.

There's good reason for that. The Montana Meth Project's own survey, released for the first time April 19, hardly paints a glowing picture of success.

Instead, the survey indicates that, after the ads blanketed the airwaves in Montana for seven months -- at a cost of millions of dollars -- Montana teens are actually less likely to associate trying meth with "great" or "moderate" risk. The same teens were also less likely to associate those risk levels with regular use.

Some specifics: Before the ads ran, 96 percent of Montana teens 12 to 17 thought there was "great or moderate" risk associated with regular meth use.

After seven months of seeing the ads, however, only 91 percent thought the risk level was that high. And a full 8 percent reported that there was "no risk" to regular meth use -- an increase of 5 percent from the pre-campaign number.

Both changes, according to the researchers hired by the Montana Meth Project, are statistically significant.

That doesn't surprise Richard Rawson. As associate director of the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Programs, he's been studying meth addiction for years. He's also the point man on meth for the National Institute of Drug Addiction, part of the National Institutes of Health.

To him, the problem is the very core of the campaign: the idea that if, like 11-year-old Jen, you try meth once, you're going to get hooked.

The ads are a "classic example," Rawson says, of the Reefer Madness-style anti-drug ads that tend to backfire on savvy teens.

By the time they're 14 or 15, some of them surely know someone who's tried meth once. And maybe those kids aren't hooked. Maybe they seem just fine.

The viewers' own personal experience may convince them that the ads are gross exaggerations, Rawson says. And at that point, the very real message that should be getting through -- that using meth is apt to destroy your life -- is lost.

Rawson says that he personally urged the Montana group to rethink its message, and that other researchers did, too.

(Despite repeated attempts, the Montana project's Seattle-based public relations reps failed to produce anyone for an interview.)

"We warned them, 'Don't do Reefer Madness,'" Rawson says. "There aren't many facts we have in terms of drug-abuse prevention -- but one that we do have is that scaring people with inaccurate information is not useful, and it's counterproductive."

Rawson does praise the Montana effort on several levels. He likes that the founder, billionaire Thomas Siebel, made a point of running the ads past focus groups, and tweaking messages until they seemed on point.

"But I don't think they could resist the temptation of throwing a big dose of, 'We'll scare them away from this stuff,'" he says. "And they received a lot of advice not to do that."

Barbara Delaney, director of research for the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in New York City, confirms that the data supports Rawson's claims.

"If you tell kids that 'you use it once and you're addicted,' and they know someone who tried it and that wasn't true, you've lost them. You've got to give them credible information."

The Partnership makes a point of running each new drug campaign past experts at the National Institute on Drug Abuse. A spokeswoman for that office confirms a long-standing relationship with the Partnership -- but says that the agency was not asked to look at the Montana ads.

As a conservative, state Senator John Huppenthal had long been skeptical about the power of drug-abuse prevention campaigns -- particularly when the campaigns were being financed with tax dollars.

But Huppenthal is also, as he'll freely admit, the kind of guy who finds spreadsheets of statistics absolutely fascinating.

And so, in the late '90s, when a fellow Republican asked him to go over numbers on Arizonans' tobacco use following a major, state-funded campaign targeting teenagers, Huppenthal found himself riveted: The numbers clearly indicated that teen smoking in Arizona had plummeted.

The drop was about 40 percent, and Huppenthal was a convert. So, this year, after hearing horror stories about the meth addiction plaguing Arizona, and reading New Times' 2005 series "The Perfect Drug," he decided that what the state needed was a really good "meth de-glamorization" campaign.

Huppenthal's bill, which would allot $5 million for the campaign, was introduced earlier this year. After successfully advancing through a few hearings, the bill was folded into the comprehensive anti-meth bill being pushed by his colleague, Representative Mark Anderson, R-Mesa.

That bill -- which is expected to pass, but is still pending -- was making its way through the Legislature when Huppenthal got a call from an analyst at the Arizona Department of Health Services. "Hey, check out what they're doing in Montana," the worker suggested.

It wasn't hard to find the Montana Meth Project. The nonprofit organization has the perfect components of a Hollywood-ready story: A charismatic founder with billions to share. A drug so bad it makes users' teeth rot and brains turn to mush. An all-American state filled with nice white kids who loved the ads so much, they actually wrote letters to the editor of their local newspaper, asking for more.

Thanks to those basic elements, the Montana Meth Project became a media darling: Everyone from the New York Times to NPR to CBS's Early Show devoted time and space to singing its praises.

The ads are unflinching in graphic depictions of the effects of meth use -- from terrible skin to hoodlum behavior.

In one television ad, "Just Once," a cute teenage girl and her friends pass around some lines. "I'm gonna try meth just this once," she tells the camera.

The scene cuts to her looking a little more haggard. "I'm gonna smoke just this once," she promises.

Then, "I'm going to steal just this once."

Finally, "I'm going to sleep with him for meth just once."

In the final scene, the girl's angelic little sister paws through her purse as the girl lies on the bed, her skin scabby, her eyes shut.

"I'm gonna try meth just once," says little sis.

In another one of the TV spots, "Bathtub," a girl is confronted by the ghost of meth use future, a scarred, tweaked-out wreck, as she showers.

"Don't do meth. Don't do it!" her future self howls.

The ads have glossy production values, and, according to the New York Times, at least some were shot by Tony Kaye, who directed Edward Norton in American History X. Adcritic.com put the ads in its Top 20 list, a fact included in nearly every newspaper story about their success.

But after studying the campaign, John Huppenthal was not convinced.

For one thing, he was concerned about the emphasis on getting hooked after using meth once. He'd read enough to know that was a dicey claim, at best.

"You really need to be very science-based," he says. "You can be creative, but you can't say something that's not so."

The bigger problem, though, was a lack of data. It was way too soon for government-sponsored "use" surveys to measure where Montana's meth consumption was dropping, and that was no one's fault.

But researchers know that there are other ways to get at whether an ad campaign is making a difference. Surveys, for example, can give good indications that a campaign is working by showing that it's changed viewers' perception about a drug.

Simple enough: If fewer kids think cigarettes are cool, fewer kids are almost certain to show up in government surveys as regular smokers.

When he asked for the data, Huppenthal says, the Montana people resisted. "They said they were not going to release it yet," he says. "They wanted to go back and remeasure what they reported."

And when the report finally was released last Wednesday, the statistics it revealed weren't all that great.

While there is absolutely no indication that any of the data has been tweaked to make the campaign look more successful than it was, you only have to read the officially released report -- a 37-page summary and 60 pages of raw data -- to get some pretty good spin.

The report's summary never mentions the statistically significant group of teens who became less wary about meth's risks after the ads ran.

And while the report notes that a greater percentage of both teens and young adults now cite specific risks associated with trying meth once, the raw data shows that about half of those reports were statistically insignificant.

Most shocking, the study recorded a 3 percent jump -- which is, in fact, significant -- in the number of teens who "strongly approved" of using meth regularly. (Similar jumps were not reported for heroin, pot, or cocaine.)

It wasn't just talk, either. The study also showed a small increase in the percentage of both teens and young adults who'd given meth a try.

They're dispiriting statistics, but you would never know it by watching the press conference at the report's release. The press conference, which was broadcast live on the Web, featured a cheerful Siebel focusing on the ads' huge penetration in Montana: 90 to 93 percent of those surveyed, he said, reported seeing them.

"They uniformly report that the ads are credible," he says. "They say that these are important and should be seen again."

Siebel also praised the report's conclusion that the ads had caused parents and children to discuss meth: "It's clear that we dramatically raised the level of discussion about meth in Montana."

Then he proffered Lance Armstrong-style "Not Even Once" bracelets. "We need every kid in Montana wearing a 'Not Even Once' wristband before this is over," he said.

Skepticism about the project was curiously absent at the press conference -- not a single question dealt with the negative numbers in the report -- and in coverage in general.

Siebel, who funded the first phase of the campaign out of his own pockets, is now urging others to climb on-board.

The foundation Siebel set up in Montana is accepting donations. If Arizona decides to run the ads, the billionaire explained, it'll set up a similar organization to accept the government's multimillion-dollar donation.

And that won't be the end of it, Siebel cautioned.

"You're not going to do anything in six months, eight months, 12 months, really. This is something you have to sustain over years." And that, of course, means even more money.

The Arizona Republic, for example, reported Goddard's interest in the project last week and claimed, without giving a citation, that the ads caused meth use in Montana to drop 30 percent. The only possible source for the statistic appears to be an article in Montana's Bozeman Daily Chronicle, which quoted Siebel saying the ads could reduce teen use by 30 percent. (Chip Scutari, the Republic reporter who cited the statistic, did not respond to an e-mail seeking information.)

It's no wonder that Arizona politicians seem almost universally gung-ho about the campaign. Andrea Esquer, Goddard's spokeswoman, cautions that nothing is set in stone, but that "we have approached Mr. Siebel about bringing the project here." Jessica Berg, a special assistant to the county manager, confirms that Maricopa County Supervisor Stapley traveled to Montana for the press conference last week and that the supervisors "hope to put a pretty good amount of money toward it" -- perhaps as much as $2 million.

After finally reading the report, Huppenthal says he remains skeptical. He's been talking to the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which has a local chapter in Phoenix and which is ready and willing to help out. He believes they may be a better choice.

But he's also intrigued by the focus group reaction to some of the ads in the Montana campaign.

"Some of these ads just blow your socks off, in terms of the perception of risk and coming off factually," he says. "Some of the other ads don't do that -- and the interesting thing will be if they restructure the campaign now based on the data they have."

Many of the radio ads, for example, are chilling in their simple facts. But others, particularly some of the TV ones, seemed ludicrous to the focus groups, according to the project's own researchers.

When it comes to the "Bathtub" commercial, for example, with the tweaked-out future self, a full 46 percent of young adults in the focus group agreed "strongly" or "somewhat" the risks of meth were exaggerated. (In a separate focus group, 47 percent of Native American teens came to the same conclusion.)

Numbers like that, Huppenthal says, means that the ads in question shouldn't be running.

But even he is not ruling out the Montana Meth Project for Arizona -- not yet.

"Some of these ads definitely need to be discarded," he says. "The target market didn't view them as credible. But they had a challenge in Montana because they had to go first. I think in Arizona, we can take advantage of the mistakes they made."

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