Commentary

Ads Won’t Keep Kids off Drugs

By Ryan H. Sager
August 13, 1998

On Thursday, July 9, President Clinton launched the latest offensive in this country’s War on Drugs. Presenting a bipartisan front, the president stood alongside Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich to unveil a new five-year, $2 billion anti-drug ad campaign. The campaign will focus primarily on television advertising: it’s intended to educate children about the dangers of drugs and to discourage their use. However, as you watch this ad campaign — which is larger than the campaigns for Sprint, American Express and Nike — you should ask yourself one vital question: Will these advertisements stop any significant number of children from using drugs? As a teenager and a sophomore in college, I can tell you that the answer to that question is a resounding no.

The government has been trying to solve the drug problem for years now but has had little to show for its efforts. Even at the height of the War on Drugs in 1992, a full 32 percent of high school seniors reported having used marijuana; nearly 10 percent had used hallucinogens; and cocaine use (including “crack” cocaine) was in the double digits.

Now politicians desperate to be seen as “doing something” about the drug problem have come up with the idea that if only we can saturate the air waves with enough anti-drug propaganda, we will finally start to see teen drug use begin to fall. However, I can tell you first-hand that such drug “education” initiatives have become a joke among teenagers. Everything from D.A.R.E. to drug education classes to anti-drug advertisements is a target of ridicule for youth who see those efforts as nothing more than heavy-handed admonitions from hypocritical baby boomers. Everyone I know has been through a drug education program of some sort and has seen anti-drug advertising, yet I do not know a single person who has stayed away from drugs because of those influences.


The problem of teenage drug use in America is not a problem of education — teenagers know the risks. No amount of advertising is likely to stop a young person inclined to do so from turning to drugs.


So, why are those programs so utterly incapable of producing results? Because they cannot strike at the root of the problem, which is moral and spiritual.

Some teens turn to drugs out of boredom, some out of insecurity — but most turn to drugs as an escape from lives that seem empty. As Patrick Fagan, senior policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation and a former family therapist and clinical psychologist, says, “Behind teenage drug use is the unhappy, empty heart that quite a few of our young adolescents have… . If they’re not happy, and the empty heart needs filling, they turn to other things.” Too often, those other things are drugs, since they give at least the feeling of security and happiness while blocking reality. Teenagers turn to drugs because they have not been provided with the inner resources to face life with confidence and hope. They have not been given a strong moral or spiritual foundation, and therefore they feel empty, confused and afraid.

I myself have watched a close friend with a fairly normal life go through a particularly hard semester in school and quickly turn to drugs after having been relatively happy and straight.

On the other hand, I’d have plenty of excuses for turning to drugs, should I choose to make them. My parents are divorced, and my 10-year-old brother Zachary died when I was 14. Still, I have never found it necessary to use an illicit drug.

The difference between us is that I was lucky enough to have received a strong spiritual upbringing from my mother. The knowledge that my life has meaning, regardless of how the world may look at any given moment, has given me the strength not to need drugs. Lack of such an understanding on my friend’s part, I believe, allowed her to make a wrong turn.

The problem of teenage drug use in America is not a problem of education — teenagers know the risks. No amount of advertising is likely to stop a young person inclined to do so from turning to drugs. The government has already proven itself unable to make a difference. What can make a difference is parenting. Says Fagan, “If parents have not taught their children how to find happiness… . then those children are at risk for mistaking pleasure and excitement as a route to happiness.” Only if parents take the time to instill in their children moral values and spiritual teachings will they realize the power within themselves to meet all of life’s challenges. I am glad my mother did that, instead of counting on the government to do her job.

Ryan H. Sager, a college sophomore, is a former Cato Institute intern.