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Free of Some Drugs


The Partnership for a Drug-Free America's Bulletin (2/97) announced that its campaign with ABC would promote adult "communication" with and control over teens regarding drugs. But what is really needed is a fundamental exercise of the media's adversary role, including arm's-length reporting on the Partnership and how its self-interests tie into the monumental failures of the "war on drugs."

For example: If, by the Partnership's estimate, today's teens and adults have been bombarded with $2 billion in anti-drug advertising over the past decade, why do we now see (by the Partnership's admission) rapidly rising drug use among teens and (by a consensus of federal reports) drug abuse deaths and injuries among adults soaring to record levels? Could one reason be that the Partnership is not a genuine anti-drug effort, but a corporate/ media back-patting consortium designed to scapegoat unpopular groups for illegal drug use while protecting the interests of legal-drug industries (who also purchase billions of dollars in media promotions)?

For a group fighting drug abuse, the Partnership has taken cash from some odd parties--including American Brands (Jim Beam whisky), Philip Morris (Marlboro and Virginia Slims cigarettes, Miller beer), Anheuser Busch (Budweiser, Michelob, Busch beer), R.J. Reynolds (Camel, Salem, Winston cigarettes), as well as pharmaceutical firms Bristol Meyers-Squibb, Merck & Company and Proctor & Gamble (Marin Institute Backgrounder, 2/97). The Partnership recently announced it will quit its alcohol and tobacco habit but will continue to mainline pharmaceutical checks (Village Voice, 3/12/97).

And its silence continues on America's deadliest drug problems: tobacco (400,000 annual deaths), alcohol (100,000, including 20,000 from drunken driving), and pharmaceuticals (6,000 to 9,000).

The most ominous, but seldom mentioned, finding of the 1995 National Household Survey on Drug Abuse: Abusive "binge drinking" among adults ages 26 and older rose sharply since 1992, adding four million potential alcohol abusers to the age group parenting the young. Recent studies have found that hundreds of children and youths die every year from fires and cancers caused by their parents' smoking (Pediatrics, 4/96), and thousands from homicides, accidents and neglect related to parents' alcoholism--many times more than perish from youthful drug abuse.

Silence Is Acceptance

But adult drinking and smoking are often taboo topics. In an interview by University of Massachusetts professor David Buchanan (Backgrounder, 2/97), Partnership president Tom Hedrick denounced those who include legal drugs like alcohol in the drug problem as "prohibitionists." (Those who questioned the dangers of marijuana, on the other hand, were dismissed as "legalizers.")

Problem is, adult drug use vs. youthful drug use, and legal vs. illegal drugs, neatly segregated in drug-war dogma, are thoroughly intermixed in real life. The federal Drug Abuse Warning Network reports that of the 560,000 people brought to hospital emergency rooms for abusing illegal drugs in 1995, the companion drug most often mixed with heroin, cocaine, pot or speed was . . . alcohol. A quarter-million ER cases involved pharmaceuticals, also often washed down with liquor (Preliminary Estimates from DAWN, 5/96).

Interestingly, the concomitant $300 million anti-drug advertising campaign announced by drug czar McCaffrey will include ads against use of alcohol or tobacco--but only by teenagers (Los Angeles Times, 2/26/97). Aside from ignoring the facts that 90 percent of America's drunken driving toll involves adult drivers 21 and over, and that youths' drinking, smoking, and drug habits are firmly linked to those of their parents and nearby grownups, this "for adults only" campaign supports subtle themes industries use to promote their products.

University of California professor and industry document analyst Stanton Glantz points to tobacco moguls' strategy to promote cigarettes as a mature, sophisticated, "adult" habit. Since "kids want to be like adults," Glantz warned, promoting smoking as "for adults only" simply "reinforces tobacco advertising" (American Journal of Public Health, 2/96).

Hedrick also told Buchanan the Partnership maintains that "reducing poverty, improving schools, strengthening families, and providing programs to enhance students' social and academic skills" are "infeasible and misguided" ways to fight drugs. Drug abuse, Hedrick said, is "solely the result of individual choice," and the only messages the Partnership advances are "stay in school" and "stay off drugs." Such an image of pure choice would be difficult to sustain if mass media openly confronted such issues as the skyrocketing toll of heroin abuse among today's middle-aged men related to Vietnam War service, or the tens of thousands of deaths from mis-prescribed medical drugs over the last 40 years.

McCaffrey and the Partnership don't talk about those drug problems. As drug historian David J. Musto pointed out in Scientific American (7/91), government-fomented anti-drug crusades thrive on "linkage between a drug and a feared or rejected group within society": Latinos and marijuana. Blacks and heroin or crack. Native Americans and hallucinogens. And today, teenagers and all the above.

Thus the drug war's implicit message: Don't be a loser "child" who smokes pot. Be a mature grownup and puff Marlboros, chase Jim Beam with a Bud, and mellow with Valium. Any questions?

Seek and Ye Shall Find

Clinton administration officials regularly manipulate the media with misleading statistics and inferences, but rarely do they brazenly announce their intent. Yet White House drug policy chief Barry McCaffrey--enraged that California and Arizona voters went against his vehement opposition and approved ballot measures allowing use of marijuana for medical purposes and reducing penalties for drug possession--told the press he intends to discover "increased drug abuse in every category" to blame on the new laws (Los Angeles Times, 11/16/96). General McCaffrey made it clear that he expects the media to fall in behind his campaign so that "the rest of the country sees clearly what happened in those two states."

McCaffrey's statement made no pretense of objectivity. The feds will comb California and Arizona stats "looking for increases in drug-related accidents, teenage pregnancy, work absences, and hospital emergency cases" to discredit the new laws, he declared.

The general's smugness is fully warranted. To date, despite abundant, readily available statistics from the government's own drug surveys, the press has seldom reported that by the same yardsticks McCaffrey would apply to California and Arizona's laws, the War on Drugs he heads is an utter disaster. --M.M.
 
 

Mike Males is a social ecology graduate student at the University of California, Irvine, and author of The Scapegoat Generation: America's War on Adolescents (Common Courage Press).

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