WASHINGTON – The government's anti-drug ad campaign has not been proven to deter children from using drugs, and lawmakers should consider reducing funding for the $1.2 billion program, congressional auditors said Friday.
The government has spent about $1.2 billion since 1998 on scores of television, print and radio ads designed to discourage drug use among youth. The ads also describe parents as the anti-drug. President Bush requested another $120 million for next year.
Westat found the ads had no "significant favorable effects" in deterring children from trying marijuana or in getting them to stop. Rather, it found that more 12 1/2- to 13-year-olds and girls were trying the drug after seeing the ads, the GAO said.
Congress first authorized funding for the media campaign with the expectation that changes in youth behavior would be evident within three years. But early analysis was inconclusive, and the government contracted with Westat Inc., a research company, to evaluate the program.
A draft of the report was submitted last year. The GAO sought to verify whether Westat's analysis was credible, and confirmed that it was.
The ads are quite common. A recent television ad, for example, shows a nurse standing over a boy who appears to have his fist stuck in his mouth. The boy mumbles something, and the nurse translates: "Yesterday my friends told me to smoke some pot and I did. Then today they said I should try and fit my fist into my mouth. It fits but I can't get it out."
The agency that oversees the media campaign, the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, took issue with several aspects of Westat's evaluation.
John Walters, director of the office, said the study was ill-suited to judge the effect of an ad campaign. The findings also have limited relevance because they are more than two years old, he said in a written response to the GAO's findings.
Walters said establishing a direct relationship between advertising exposure and outcomes is virtually impossible.
"We have dealt with criticism of the campaign from adversaries, including those who advocate the legalization of drugs," he said. "And we have periodically needed to place these findings in context, especially because all major youth surveys report declining teen drug use."