Why almost all anti-drug campaigns fail miserably

If you’ve seen alcohol or — especially — tobacco products on sale in the United States, you’ve likely noticed the blaring warnings they contain. Similarly, if you are of a certain age, you probably remember the iconic anti-drug television ad showing a man frying an egg and explaining, “This is your brain on drugs.”

Well, a study by psychologists at the University of Zurich shows that these scared-straight messages might not work—at all. In fact, as Livescience reports, this kind of agitprop might have exactly the opposite effect.

The study’s results indicate that consumers of marijuana, alcohol and tobacco more actively seek out information about the health risks associated with those substances than do people who abstain from the drugs.

Specifically, survey respondents who smoked dope once a week or more said they were four times more likely to seek out health-related information about marijuana. People who smoked and drank on a regular basis were twice as likely to look for health information about their vices.

Alcohol, marijuana and tobacco users across all education levels also rated themselves as more knowledgeable about the health risks associated with their drugs of choice.

The study was published in July. It was based on a survey of 12,000 Swiss men who were approximately 20 years old and entering the Swiss Army. (Military service is mandatory in Switzerland, so the study is likely to include a broad socioeconomic sample.)

“When you know a lot about the risks and everything about the substances, it doesn’t really bring you to consume less,” study co-author Petra Dermota told Livescience. “You even consume more.”

The notion that drug users would know about drugs is knee-slappingly obvious. At the same, it suggests that basing an anti-substance-abuse campaign on the dangers of drugs — some images of black lungs, or lost ambition, or lives destroyed — could be ineffective because users have already found out all about those risks.

“At the moment, most campaigns are just giving young people a lot of information, but this is not enough to prevent people from being at risk and using drugs,” Dermota told LiveScience.

The academic’s solution to improve future substance-abuse prevention campaigns is to make them less informative and more likely to spur critical thinking.

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