Use advertising in the War on Drugs to reduce demand

Anyone interested in the War on Drugs need to watch the TV series ‘Narcos’ which tells a true-life story of cocaine drug cartels across the globe and the subsequent efforts of law enforcement to bring it to an end within a brutal and bloody conflict. The story focuses on the billionaire drug lord Pablo Escobar in Colombia and the DEA (Drug Enforcement Agency) officer that is sent there to track him down and eventually kill him.

It gives us a glimpse of the nature of the business behind narcotics and the fact that this is a complicated industry that has been around for a long time, which means that it requires a tremendous amount of effort and a long term view to be stopped. The US has a long history in fighting the drug menace and its first official policy against substance abuse was the Harrisons Narcotics Act set in 1914.

Since then there have been numerous government actions taken against the illegal drugs industry focusing on cutting the supply, disrupting the distribution, punishment on dealing and possession, as well as reducing demand through advertising campaigns targeted at users, students and parents.

In 1971 US President Nixon declared the war on drugs and since then over USD 1 trillion has been spent on the initiative with varied results. Majority of the budgets have been used on law enforcement and other methods to control the supply of illegal drugs with a fraction going to demand reduction. With the drug cartels making profits of up to 300 percent from their trade, it would require the supply to be reduced by more than 75 percent to have an effect, and this would require unthinkable budgets. Yet controlling the supply and not the demand will only push up the price and the profits that the drug lords accumulate.

In 2005 the United Nations estimated that the size of the global illegal drug trade was worth more than USD 320 billion and this gives us a clue that the problem locally won’t be solved by a couple of minor arrests in Mombasa followed by expert panel debates on the evening news. In fact, one major initiative that began to have an effect on demand reduction was the ‘Just Say No’ campaign by the US First Lady Nancy Regan in the 1980s which run for over a decade.

The Just Say No campaign was established with the aim of discouraging children from illegal recreational drug use by offering various ways of saying no and the slogan was created and championed by the First Lady during her husbands presidency. Mrs. Regan travelled throughout the United States and other nations totaling about 400,000 kilometers, visiting drug rehabilitation centers, abuse prevention programs, generating tremendous awareness on television through public service announcements, talk shows, documentaries and even featuring on popular Sitcoms and TV series.

In 1985 Mrs. Regan expanded the campaign and invited the the First Ladies of 30 various nations to the White House in Washington D.C. for a conference titled ‘First Ladies Against Drug Abuse’. She later became the first First Lady to address the United Nations.

Even though a direct relationship between the Just Say No campaign and the reduction in drug use cannot be established, the use and abuse of recreational drugs significantly declined during the Regan presidency.

In the late 80’s there was about USD 1 million media time per day in the United States focused on the anti-drug campaign. Some research shows that the advertising had little, or even a reverse effect on the use of illegal drugs, and this prompted the review of the key messages in the campaigns. The latest campaign has moved from ‘My Anti-Drug’ which focuses on the negative effects of drug use to ‘Above The Influence’ which emphasizes personal autonomy. While the old campaign may have shown a boy getting arrested for smoking marijuana in the mens room, for example, the new campaign would show a boy being manipulated by different people until he walks away. The message being ‘don’t give up the ability to decide for yourself’.

In 2005 President George H. W. Bush, while continuing with the tough policy against drug abuse launched by his predecessor President Regan, set a goal of reducing youth substance abuse by 10 percent in 1 year and 25 percent in 5 years. Over and above setting specific goals, they also put in place research mechanisms to measure the impact of their initiatives in order to justify the spend and understand the actions that had the biggest impact.

As the Kenyan administration increases its efforts in the fight against illegal drug trade that aims to reduce its negative effect on our society, it is important to gather data and have the necessary insight in order to have a positive outcome and ensure that the budgets committed do not go to waste.


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