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Public service announcements about drug use or other public health problems often fall short, public health marketing experts say, because they incite people’s worst fears rather than giving people solutions.
ST. LOUIS — The public service announcement showed a mother finding her teenage son lifeless, juxtaposed with the sound of a ukulele and a woman singing, “That’s how, how you OD’d on heroin.”
“You want to tap into a nerve, an emotional nerve, and controversy and anger,” said Mark Schupp, whose consulting firm created the ad pro bono. “The spot was designed to do that, so we were happy with it.”
But like other ads and PSAs seeking to move the needle on public health, it went only so far.
Marketing experts say public health advertising often falls short because it incites people’s worst fears rather than providing clear steps viewers can take to save lives. They say lessons from opioid messaging can inform campaigns seeking to influence behavior that could help curb the coronavirus pandemic, such as wearing masks, not gathering in big groups and getting a covid-19 vaccine.
The Super Bowl ad was produced and aired by the St. Louis chapter of the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Abuse using $100,000 from an anonymous donor. Then-director Howard Weissman said a top priority for his group was for Missouri to start a prescription drug monitoring program.
Five years later, Missouri remains the only state without a statewide program. And the number of opioid deaths has steadily increased in that time, state data shows, up from 672 in all of 2015 to 716 deaths in just the first six months of 2020.
The national council, now called PreventEd, is one of many nonprofits and government agencies that invest millions in messaging aimed at curbing the opioid epidemic. People who study such advertisements said it’s difficult to measure their impact, but if the metric is the number of overdose deaths, they have not yet succeeded. The country set a record for overdose deaths in 2019 that it was on pace to break in 2020.
“You have to give them a solution, especially in a health context, like with opioids, because similar to with cigarette smoking, if you increase fear and don’t give a solution, they are just going to abuse more because that’s their coping mechanism,” said Punam Anand Keller, a Dartmouth College professor who studies health marketing.
To address public health issues, marketers often use images of diseased lungs to discourage smokers or the bloody aftermath of car crashes to prevent drunken driving. But these can provoke “defensive responses” that may be avoided by giving people ways to take action, said a 2014 International Journal of Psychology review of campaigns that use fear to persuade people.
Missouri’s state health and mental health departments, with the help of federal funds, spent at least $800,000 on advertising in 2019 to curb the opioid epidemic through their Time 2 Act and NoMODeaths campaigns, according to data from advertising agencies and partner organizations.
Mac Curran, a 34-year-old social media influencer, described his struggles with opioid addiction in a number of videos for Time 2 Act, one of which was viewed more than 100,000 times on Facebook. In another recent video, Curran used storytelling to highlight the benefits of getting treatment for his addiction. He talked about strangers cheering for him when he returned to a friend’s streetwear store after getting out of the recovery program, and discussed how he learned coping skills he could use throughout life.
Jay Winsten, a Harvard University scientist who spearheaded the U.S. designated-driver campaign to combat drunken driving, described Curran’s videos as “really excellent because he comes across as genuine and well spoken. People remember stories more than they do someone simply lecturing at them.”
Still, Winsten emphasized the importance of including actionable steps and would like to see Missouri and other groups focus on teaching friends of users “how to intervene and what language to use and not to use.”
Others, including the libertarian Cato Institute, argue that PSAs on drug use just don’t work and point to the history of failed campaigns to discourage teen marijuana use.
Yet agencies keep trying. Missouri’s mental health department and the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri-St. Louis convened focus groups in 2019 with drug users and their families and captured their words on billboards for the NoMODeaths campaign. One said, “Don’t give up on treatment. It’s worth the work,” and gave a number to text for help with heroin, fentanyl or pill misuse.
In addition to giving information, the goal was “to let people who use drugs know that other people care if they live or die,” said Rachel Winograd, a psychologist who leads the NoMODeaths group aimed at reducing harm from opioid misuse.
She said she understands the argument that PSAs are a waste of money, given that organizations like hers have limited funds and also try to provide housing for those in recovery and naloxone, used to revive people after overdoses.
But, Winograd said, some of the advertisements appeared to work. The organization saw a big increase after the ads ran in the number of people who visited its website or texted a number for information on treatment or obtaining naloxone.
Although federal funding rose for fiscal years 2021 and 2022, Winograd’s team and state officials decided to cut NoMODeaths’ advertising budget in half and instead spend the money on direct services like naloxone, treatment and housing.
Now health agencies are consumed by the coronavirus pandemic and are trying to craft messages that cut through politically charged discourse and get the public to adopt safety measures such as wearing masks, staying physically distanced and getting vaccinated.
Convincing people to wear masks has been difficult because messages have been mixed. Missouri’s health department has tried to depoliticize mask-wearing and get people to view it as a public health solution, said spokesperson Lisa Cox.
But Missouri Gov. Mike Parson has appeared without a mask at public events and has declined to enact a statewide mask mandate. He also said at a Missouri Cattlemen’s Association event in July, “If you want to wear a dang mask, wear a mask.”
Cox would not comment on whether Parson’s approach undermined the state’s public health efforts, but Keller said it did.
Missouri’s messaging about vaccines has been much more straightforward and clear. A website provides facts and answers to common questions as it encourages people to “make an informed choice” on whether to get the shots.
Keller praised the “unemotional, not-fear-arousing” approach to the vaccine messaging issued so far.
“It needs the right messengers: well-known individuals who have high credibility within specific population groups that currently are hesitant about taking the vaccine,” Winsten said.
This time, Parson has been one of those messengers. When he announced the launch of the vaccine website in November, he said in a news release: “Safety is not being sacrificed, and it’s important for Missourians to understand this.”
In spite of the politicization of the virus crisis, Winsten, who serves on the board of advisers of the Ad Council’s $50 million covid vaccine campaign, has “guarded optimism” that enough people will get vaccinated to curb the pandemic.
And he remains hopeful that PSAs could eventually help reduce the number of people who die from opioids.
“Look at the whole anti-smoking movement. That took over two decades,” he said. “These are tough problems. Otherwise, they would be solved already.”
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Covid-19, distrust of police and cheap narcotics have turned parts of the wealthy city into cesspools of filth and drug overdose. City officials and residents profoundly disagree on what needs to be done.
SAN FRANCISCO — In early 2019, Tom Wolf posted a thank-you on Twitter to the cop who had arrested him the previous spring, when he was homeless and strung out in a doorway with 103 tiny bindles of heroin and cocaine in a plastic baggie at his feet.
“You saved my life,” wrote Wolf, who had finally gotten clean after that bust and 90 days in jail, ending six months of sleeping on scraps of cardboard on the sidewalk.
Today, he joins a growing chorus of people, including the mayor, calling for the city to crack down on an increasingly deadly drug trade. But there is little agreement on how that should be done. Those who demand more arrests and stiffer penalties for dealers face powerful opposition in a city with little appetite for locking people up for drugs, especially as the Black Lives Matter and Defund the Police movements push to drastically limit the power of law enforcement to deal with social problems.
Drug overdoses killed 621 people in the first 11 months of 2020, up from 441 in all of 2019 and 259 in 2018. San Francisco is on track to lose an average of nearly two people a day to drugs in 2020, compared with the 178 who had died by Dec. 20 of the coronavirus.
As in other parts of the country, most of the overdoses have been linked to fentanyl, the powerful synthetic opioid that laid waste to the eastern United States starting in 2013 but didn’t arrive in the Bay Area until about five years later. Just as the city’s drug scene was awash with the lethal new product — which is 50 times stronger than heroin and sells on the street for around $20 for a baggie weighing less than half a gram — the coronavirus pandemic hit, absorbing the attention and resources of health officials and isolating drug users, making them more likely to overdose.
The pandemic is contributing to rising overdose deaths nationwide, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which reported last month that a record 81,000 Americans died of an overdose in the 12 months ending in May.
“This is moving very quickly in a horrific direction, and the solutions aren’t matching it,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and South of Market neighborhoods, where nearly 40% of the deaths have occurred. Haney, who has hammered City Hall for what he sees as its indifference to a life-or-death crisis, is calling for a more coordinated response.
“It should be a harm reduction response, it should be a treatment response — and yes, there needs to be a law enforcement aspect of it too,” he said.
Tensions within the city’s leadership came to a head in September, when Mayor London Breed supported an effort by City Attorney Dennis Herrera to clean up the Tenderloin by legally blocking 28 known drug dealers from entering the neighborhood.
But District Attorney Chesa Boudin, a progressive elected in 2019 on a platform of police accountability and racial justice, sided with activists opposing the move. He called it a “recycled, punishment-focused” approach that would accomplish nothing.
People have died on the Tenderloin’s needle-strewn sidewalks and alone in hotel rooms where they were housed by the city to protect them from covid-19. Older Black men living alone in residential hotels are dying at particularly high rates; Blacks make up around 5% of the city’s population but account for a quarter of the 2020 overdoses. Last February, a man was found hunched over, ice-cold, in the front pew at St. Boniface Roman Catholic Church.
The only reason drug deaths aren’t in the thousands, say health officials, is the outreach that has become the mainstay of the city’s drug policy. From January to October, 2,975 deaths were prevented by naloxone, an overdose reversal drug that’s usually sprayed up the nose, according to the DOPE Project, a city-funded program that trains outreach workers, drug users, the users’ family members and others.
“If we didn’t have Narcan,” said program manager Kristen Marshall, referring to the common naloxone brand name, “there would be no room at our morgue.”
The city is also hoping that this year state lawmakers will approve safe consumption sites, where people can do drugs in a supervised setting. Other initiatives, like a 24-hour meth sobering center and an overhaul of the city’s behavioral health system, have been put on hold because of pandemic-strained resources.
Efforts like the DOPE Project, the country’s largest distributor of naloxone, reflect a seismic shift over the past few years in the way cities confront drug abuse. As more people have come to see addiction as a disease rather than a crime, there is little appetite for locking up low-level dealers, let alone drug users — policies left over from the “war on drugs” that began in 1971 under President Richard Nixon and disproportionately punished Black Americans.
In practice, San Francisco police don’t arrest people for taking drugs, certainly not in the Tenderloin. On a sunny afternoon in early December, a red-haired young woman in a beret crouched on a Hyde Street sidewalk with her eyes closed, clutching a piece of foil and a straw. A few blocks away, a man sat on the curb injecting a needle into a thigh covered with scabs and scars, while two uniformed police officers sat in a squad car across the street.
Last spring, after the pandemic prompted a citywide shutdown, police stopped arresting dealers to avoid contacts that might spread the coronavirus. Within weeks, the sidewalks of the Tenderloin were lined with transients in tents. The streets became such a narcotics free-for-all that many of the working-class and immigrant families living there felt afraid to leave their homes, according to a federal lawsuit filed by business owners and residents. It accuses City Hall of treating less wealthy ZIP codes as “containment zones” for the city’s ills.
The suit was settled a few weeks later after officials moved most of the tents to designated “safe sleeping sites.” But for many, the deterioration of the Tenderloin, juxtaposed with the gleaming headquarters of companies like Twitter and Uber just blocks away, symbolizes San Francisco’s starkest contradictions.
The Federal Initiative for the Tenderloin was one such effort, announced in 2019. It aims to “reclaim a neighborhood that is being smothered by lawlessness,” U.S. Attorney David Anderson said at a recent virtual news conference held to announce a major operation in which the feds arrested seven people and seized 10 pounds of fentanyl.
Law enforcement agencies have blamed the continued availability of cheap, potent drugs on lax prosecutions. Boudin, however, said his office files charges in 80% of felony drug cases, but most involve low-level dealers whom cartels can easily replace in a matter of hours.
He pointed to a 2019 federal sting that culminated in the arrest of 32 dealers — mostly Hondurans who were later deported — after a two-year undercover operation involving 15 agencies.
“You go walk through the Tenderloin today and tell me if it made a difference,” said Boudin.
His position reflects a growing “progressive prosecutor” movement that questions whether decades-old policies that focus on putting people behind bars are effective or just. In May, the killing of George Floyd by the Minneapolis police energized a nationwide police reform campaign. Cities around the country, including San Francisco, have promised to redirect millions of dollars from law enforcement to social programs.
“If our city leadership says in one breath that they want to defund the police and are for racial and economic justice and in the next talk about arresting drug dealers, they’re hypocrites and they’re wrong,” said Marshall, the leader of the DOPE Project.
But Wolf, 50, believes a concerted crackdown on dealers would send a message to the drug networks that San Francisco is no longer an open-air illegal drug market.
Like hundreds of thousands of other Americans who’ve succumbed to opiate misuse, he began with a prescription for the painkiller oxycodone, in his case following foot surgery in 2015. When the pills ran out, he made his way from his tidy home in Daly City, just south of San Francisco, to the Tenderloin, where dealers in hoodies and backpacks loiter three or four deep on some blocks.
When he could no longer afford pills, Wolf switched to heroin, which he learned how to inject on YouTube. He soon lost his job as a caseworker for the city and his wife threw him out, so he became homeless, holding large quantities of drugs for Central American dealers, who sometimes showed him photos of the lavish houses they were having built for their families back home.
Looking back, he wishes it hadn’t taken six arrests and three months behind bars before someone finally pushed him toward treatment.
“In San Francisco, it seems like we’ve moved away from trying to urge people into treatment and instead are just trying to keep people alive,” he said. “And that’s not really working out that great.”
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