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Last Updated: Wednesday, 18 April 2007, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Just say... what?
Heroin Screws You Up, Just Say No, Talk to Frank

By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

More than two decades of anti-drugs campaigns have been largely fruitless in preventing drug use among young people, says a report. With teenage rebellion as it is, are such campaigns doomed to fail?

First it was Zammo, now it's Frank.

Twenty years after the Grange Hill pupil told its young BBC audience to "Just Say No" to drugs, young people are being told to "Talk to Frank", a figurative friend who offers advice and information.

A report to the UK Drugs Policy Commission, which was launched on Wednesday, says there is little evidence such campaigns reduce rates of drug use.

Talk To Frank

Getting a moral message across to young people is notoriously difficult. George Bush's US administration has spent more than $1bn promoting sexual abstinence, but research this week suggested it had had no effect.

On the other hand, the famous gravestone Aids adverts were credited with reducing HIV infections in the UK 20 years ago.

So after two decades of trying almost everything, how can any anti-drugs campaigns succeed?

With difficulty, says Neil Hunt, director of KCA - a drug and alcohol service provider. He thinks money is better spent on so-called secondary prevention, targeting vulnerable groups like young offenders and children in care.

VOTE RESULTS
Which advert is most effective?
Dummy
 13.00% 
Talk to Frank
 17.06% 
Neither
 69.93% 
8691 Votes Cast
Results are indicative and may not reflect public opinion
"However much societies would like to have them, campaigns and programmes of this sort, which hope to prevent drug use in the first place, are surrounded by unrealistic expectations and will not deliver this to any significant extent.

"Patterns of drug consumption are too embedded and youth culture and peer influences have a far greater effect that is just not amenable to central initiatives like these."

The medium can be as important as the content, says Dan Clays, managing director at digital media specialist BLM Quantum.

"Distribution on social networking sites and consumer-generated content would have more impact because youth media consumption is so fragmented and traditional channels are dwarfed by digital media.

'Alarmist'

"Today's youth are more enfranchised and have more control than ever over the media and advertising they receive, so where the message is placed must reflect this to have any recognition."

The message itself has changed since the first campaign in 1985, a year before Zammo's habit made national headlines.

The slogan of the series of short films was Heroin Screws You Up, although evidence suggested it led to some glamorisation of addiction and the "heroin chic" fashion style.

ARE YOUNGSTERS SAYING 'NO'?
11-15 years: In 12 months to September 2005, drug use fell from 19% to 11%.
16-24 years: Between 1998 and 2005, drug use fell from 32% to 26%
Sources: Stats on Young People and Drugs Misuse 2006, British Crime Survey 2005-06

A similar tone was used throughout the 80s and 90s, which was a time of rocketing drug use among young people.

Ecstasy was linked to the death in 1995 of Leah Betts, who collapsed at her 18th birthday party and the image of her on a life-support machine was used in a subsequent poster campaign entitled Sorted.

But the Talk to Frank campaigns launched in 2003 marked a significant change in emphasis. A narrator, speaking in a conversational way, directs viewers to a website and telephone line - an information and advice service called Frank.

Moving story

While the potential risks of drugs like crystal meth and cannabis are spelled out, there is acknowledgement that some drugs can have a benign effect, like ecstasy making people hug each other. Appearing on television, online and even in a Hollyoaks storyline, the cost so far is 24m.

Explaining the shift in strategy, a Home Office spokesman says: "We moved on from 'Just Say No' to empowering people with information - for example, if you take crystal meth, this is what happens to your teeth - so they can make informed and educated choices.

It's not as if we're spending all this money on glitzy adverts and nothing else
Home Office spokesman
"The good news is that drug use has fallen by a fifth among 16 to 24-year-olds over the last 10 years.

"There are also record numbers of people undergoing treatment so it's not as if we're spending all this money on glitzy adverts and nothing else. We've spent 7.5bn on drugs policy since 1998."

It's difficult to judge the impact of Frank, says Martin Barnes, chief executive of DrugScope, but he thinks giving people credible information was a welcome change in direction.

'Anguish'

"Teenage drug use increased so much in the 90s and 80s that alarmist campaigns like Just Say No lost credibility because young people knew drug users who were not coming to harm. So rather than look at the risks, they thought 'what I'm being told is nonsense because one smoke of cannabis doesn't kill you.'"

Success should not be judged solely on rates of use - which have fallen - but on making people aware of the risks and reducing harm, he says. And the distinction between casual drug users and problematic ones needs to be made.

Mr Barnes believes the Leah Betts campaign backfired because young people who experimented with ecstasy knew a tablet was very unlikely to kill them.

Rachel Whitear
Rachel's video told her tragic story

But the parents of another teenager believe sharing their tragic story has made a difference.

A video showing the transformation of Rachel Whitear from a bright teenager to a 21-year-old slumped in a rented room in Exmouth was circulated to schools three years after her death from a heroin overdose. It is still watched by Year 7 pupils today.

Her parents, Mick and Pauline Holcroft, featured in the 22-minute video and accompanied viewings of it.

Mrs Holcroft says although it's impossible to quantify the impact, the young audiences she saw watching it were moved.

"Several of them came to us and said 'I'm never going to do that.' That made all the effort and pain and anguish worthwhile."


A selection of your comments appears below.

Which is more effective? As one of the teenagers that these adverts are meant to appeal to, I'd have to say 'FRANK'. It at least gives the impression that the information it's giving isn't biased and false - unlike a lot of the anti-cannabis campaigns we, as students, have to endure. The likes of 'Frank' and internet wonder 'Erowid', are the way forward; treating us like adults is more likely to get through than telling us to 'Just say no' without question.
Brendan Bennett, Hertfordshire

I have taken drugs but have now stopped. Why? Because I lost everything and everyone. No advert stopped me, no drugs talk in school, no lecture off my parents. We need to make our own mistakes and learn by them
Kerry, Milton Keynes

Who is a teenager going to trust more - 'adverts telly' paid for by the government or their own experiences and experiences of there friends? Does anyone really think they will seriously 'ask Frank' if Es are bad for you when they see 300 people in club on E and not only not dieing but having a great time? If governments want to protect people from the dangers of drugs they should stop perpetuating the lie that E's are so much deadly than alcohol and spliffs are so much more worse then ciggies.
CD, Ulverston, England

Anyone who has experienced FRANK knows that the key difference is that this campaign does not "tell" young audiences what to do or even use the phrase "don't take drugs". It encourages healthy, honest and open conversation and allows teenagers to make up their own mind. It respects the fact that people will always make their own choices in life based on the information they have access to regardless of whether it is from their friends, parents, the media or the government.
Lucy Jane, London

Every teenager has experience of recreational drugs, either themselves or a close friend and one has their head in the sand if they think otherwise. Drugs campaigns are completely ineffective in stopping or slowing usage as most users are indulging in what they see as a lifestyle choice. By the time users are onto heroin, physical/medical intervention is required. The ONLY thing that will have a definitive impact is to reduce the supply - simple, but the truth.
Neil Lawrence, UK

Personally I think adverts could have an effect if they were of the same standard as the speeding or drink-driving adverts. They are graphic and hard-hitting and really get the message across. I recently passed my driving test and would never even consider drink-driving, partly thanks to the adverts. Drugs need to be pictured in the same light.
Hannah, Leicester

I have to disagree with the sentiment that anti-drugs campaigns have been ineffective. We may not be able to see a fall in the numbers of people using and abusing drugs, but what people seem to fail to realise is that these campaigns have probably done a lot to slow down the increase in drug use. So yes, drug abuse may be a problem which is still on the increase, but I think without these campaigns we would see things getting worse much faster.
Richard Mason, Lincoln, UK

Frank. Well, not much use talking to 'him'. A friend of mine phoned them almost 2 years ago after one of their group was vomiting blood after smoking marijuana. They were told to 'put him to bed'. Sounds like Frank doesn't have a clue! Thankfully, the friends were a little more sensible and dialled 999 which was the best move they made that night!
Tony Kenny,

To Tony's "vomiting blood after smoking marijuana" comment. The kids received the right advice, lie down, go to sleep - have someone watch over you while you're asleep so that you don't vomit in your sleep. Calling 999 and wasting valuable emergency service resources on stupid kids smoking too much pot is preposterous. Your comments highlight your lack of knowledge of cannabis and it's effects.
C Marin, London

Drug use in my school was wiped out overnight in 1976. How? One of the 6th formers (popular, good looking, involved in most of the sports teams) died from an overdose that (we all knew)he had been taking regularly. Arranging for a death each year is not an option, but it's the only anti-drugs message that is guaranteed to be effective amongst the young.
David Gold, Elstree Herts

If you told young men that smoking cannabis drops their testosterone levels and can make them grow breasts, I guarantee cannabis use will drop like a stone. Sadly because of the demonisation of softer drugs in the past, people assume that its all hype and that there are no side-effects...which is not the case.
Andy, London UK

Well Andy, where on earth have you got this from? This just proves that education about drugs (in particular cannabis) is no good as your statement is utter nonsense. I am not saying smoking cannabis is without it's risks but you certainly are not going to start growing breasts....I would be a 36DD by now !!
Robert Price, Warrington, UK

I'm 40. I've lived through every anti-drug campaign since the mid 70's. I have also lived through seeing my elders, peers, and now youngers doing what I did, which is making their mind up on personal experience. I know plenty of people who have got messed up by alcohol, but none by cannabis. None of the people I know who use cannabis have used heroin or cocaine. One thing is for sure. If you want young people to listen,, you have to treat them as having minds of their own, and that means to stop lying about the "menace of drugs". Especially when we are content to let 18+ year olds get blotto every weekend on alcohol.
Jethro, Birmingham

People ignore drug campaigns because of misinformation and lies, Leah Betts wasn't even killed by ecstasy - she drowned through drinking too much. Even medical professionals and social workers I have seen personally are misinformed about the dangers of cannabis (and anyone, like me, who uses it recreationally and in moderation is so very aware how less harmful it is than alcohol). Things like the ridiculous claims about super-skunk (the Guardian did an excellent debunking) just mean people will trust their own experiences and the views of their peers significantly more than what some campaign claims.
Ruth, Birmingham, UK

Drug awareness campaigns have gained credibility in the move from ridiculous black and white morality (Just Say No) to accurate information (eg Frank); but they will never be completely credible until the law changes to reflect the fact that many drugs are no more harmful than cigarettes and alcohol.
Chris Johns, Bristol, UK

I find myself agreeing totally with Chris Johns. Statistically sex is more dangerous than drugs, but no government has yet had the courage to publicise this fact.
John Airey, Peterborough, UK

It's miserable being a teenager, and drugs and alcohol help them feel happy and in control. And they're still young enough to have no conception of their own mortality, so warning them 'drugs kill' just slides right over them. And of course, most campaigns are run by adults, who would do ANYTHING to stop kids having fun (or so teenagers think, as any parent can tell you) so of course, those campaigns are ignored as 'adult propaganda'
MB, London

A friend of mine who teaches (among other things) Health and Social Education in a high school says she thinks the best ever anti-drugs advert was the film Trainspotting.
Gordon JC Pearce, Glasgow




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