Similarly, a 2015 review of 19 studies analyzing anti‐drug media campaigns found only mixed evidence of positive impacts. Of the programs reviewed, only four seemed to reduce use, while eight had no effect and two seemed to increase use. The review cautions that, “[c]ontrary to common belief, antidrug media campaigns may be damaging.” A plausible explanation is that advertisements imply that drug use is common. Robert Hornik finds that “more ad exposure was associated with the belief that other youths were marijuana users, and this belief was predictive of subsequent initiation of marijuana use.”
And these campaigns are not free. The National Youth Anti‐Drug Media Campaign, which ran between 1998 and 2004, cost an estimated $1.2 billion. The cost of President Trump’s anti‐opioid campaign is not yet known, but The Hill has reported that “likely millions of dollars would need to be behind a national media blitz.” This for an initiative shown in analogous cases to have negligible or even perverse effects.
Perhaps in response to these concerns, the administration emphasizes that anti‐opioid advertisements are only part of its efforts to curb opioid use. Indeed, President Trump’s plan to reduce overdoses includes several interventions, including the death penalty for drug dealers, tougher immigration restrictions, and greater restrictions on legal opioid prescriptions.
All these policies are misguided, but tighter restrictions on the amount of prescriptions doctors can issue are especially concerning. The DEA has proposed limiting opioid production in the United States by 20% over the course of this year, which will harm patients who need opioids for medical reasons. As Diederik Lohman, Director of Health and Human Rights for Human Rights Watch told the Pain News Network that without access to these drugs, people face “tremendous suffering that actually could be relieved pretty easily through very inexpensive palliative care and pain management.”
Worse, restrictions on opioid prescriptions push those who want opioids, for whatever reason, to the black market, where the risks of opioids are far greater due to lack of information about potency. Since federally inspired crackdowns on prescriptions began in 2010, overdoses have risen even faster as consumers substitute their prescriptions with heroin, often laced with even more potent fentanyl. Contrary to the claim that prescribing causes overdoses, the evidence shows that limits on access to opioid prescriptions generate overdoses.
The White House’s anti‐opioid advertisements represent the reprisal of a failed approach to drug policy. Likewise, past attempts to double down on prohibition have only made drug use more dangerous, while also fostering crime and corruption. If President Trump truly wishes to reduce overdose deaths, he should look away from the television camera and towards the harmful effects of his own restrictions on prescribing.