The ’80s Era “Just-Say-No-To-Drugs” Philosophy and Evidence-Based Smoking Cessation Education: Two Divergent Approaches, Only One Success

The 1980s approach to drug addiction could easily be summed up in three epic  words: Just. Say. No.  Our then-First Lady, Mrs. Nancy Reagan, along with D.A.R.E. (Drug Addiction Resistance Education), took a hard line on drug addiction.

DARE logo - Drug Abuse Resistance Education

Drug Abuse Resistance Education (DARE) Logo

The approach was simply and clear: Keep kids from ever touching drugs. Teach them to shun drugs, to say no, even to the possibility.  For years, drug war crusaders reciting this mantra tried their hardest to stem the rising tide of drug addition.

This approach relied heavily on emotion-laden appeals, a fear-based approach that was supposed to scare kids straight.  Except it didn’t.  As much as we tried to keep our youth drug-free, the number of addicts kept rising.  An idea, in principle, may work.  In practice, it may fail miserably.  Here, such was so.

Cocaine By Valero Everett

Cocaine by Valero Everett

According to a mathematical review of the data about teens, Wei Pan, researching at the University of Cincinnati, along with Haiyan Bai of the University of Central Florida, found that D.A.R.E. was statistically insignificant in reducing teen drug addiction.  Why weren’t kids listening to the police officers’ advice not to take drugs?  What was happening?  How is it that the kids were missing the point?

Effectively communicating the hazards of drug abuse to adolescents was the primary goal.  If we ask why the “Just Say No” approach failed in America in the 80s, we must consider what we are really saying when we tell kids this.  “Just say no!” means say no, without reservation, without due consideration.

Homeless by SEO Jester

Homeless Person by SEO Jester

Close your mind to the very possibility of taking drugs.  Drugs are bad and will mess up your life.  While all this is true, unfortunately kids learn by challenging ideas, not by being told how to think.

Saying to a child, “Just do this!” doesn’t leave much room for a teaching moment.  After all, how can one learn under compulsion?  And, sometimes kids even do what we don’t want them to do in response.  Sometimes they are even downright defiant.

Compound this with the fact that in many instances, information on drugs was not completely accurate.  For instance, claims that marijuana is “slightly less dangerous” than heroin or amphetamines were common in the 80s in America.  (How many of you 80s kids out there remember this?)  Here’s where the issues begin accumulating quickly.

Satan's Furnace by torbakhopper - Crack Pipe

Satans’ Furnace (Crack Pipe) by torbakhopper

Adolescents were often told marijuana stunts growth,  can grow a man breasts like a woman, and damages the brain.  Users were depicted as violent.  They stole to buy their drugs, we were told.  The information was not based in evidence, but rather a viewpoint that drugs are bad, and kids must be kept away at all costs.

This viewpoint, and the good intentions behind it, failed miserably.  Parents, teachers, and counselors wanted kids away from drugs at all costs.  The strategy that they chose was probably not best, but this is what they themselves encountered as youths.  However, it was a different time, a different social idiom.

Then, there were the kids in college and high school involved in extra-curricular activities, sports, and academically successful.  All this while maintaining a high school A-list social life.  Some of these kids smoked weed.  Many drank socially. And, many didn’t hide these facts.  This surely had many other kids thinking and wondering.

Also, many kids invariably knew elders from past generations, some only slightly older, both family and neighbors, who casually smoked marijuana and had amazing careers or longtime steady jobs, great families, and beautiful, well-maintained  homes.  None seemed particularly brain damaged. Some were even quite intelligent and funny.

There Is No Food At The Fair by Kenneth Konica littlebiglens

Mr. Smith Loves His Cheeseburgers and Strawberry Shakes Twice Daily. Image:”There Is No Food At The Fair” by Kenneth Konica littlebiglens

And, as far as most could tell, no man partaking of the herb ever grew any sizable breasts.  Sure, all the kids in the neighborhood agreed that Mr. Smith, from the local cart race place,  looked…unusual…but he never smoked weed, only ate and ate at the local burger joint every single day and night and yelled at the kids smoking weed in his amusement park, telling them it’s grown by the  devil himself.  If anything, eating burgers and shakes with abandon like Mr. Smith will do that to your figure, not marijuana!

Once kids saw one claim about drugs as inaccurate or dubious, their trust in other well-established facts dissipates. If a joint doesn’t make anyone at school violent as claimed, then maybe heroin isn’t so bad.  This may not be the clearest of thinking, but it’s what occurs once a trusted source of information is spurned.

Super Grape Ape by Shadowhound

Super Grape Ape Marijuana Flower Macro. Image by Shadowhound

There’s no telling what may happen next.  Therefore, keeping kids trusting parents and teachers and drug education officers is essential.  Their words may save many future kids’ lives.  The conclusion from this is that we should always present verifiable facts about drugs, backed by medical research and health science.

“Reefer Madness” and other comical notions from the distant past have little place in our information-driven society where we, and our society’s adolescents,  place a premium on accuracy of data. Back in the “good old days”, there was no Internet or instant fact checking via phone. There was radio, which left a lot to the imagination, as well as movies and films, and maybe a few had TVs.  Kids then were a lot more gullible, growing up in a very narrow world, exposed to a lot less information.  They had images about the world, not facts.  It was a different time.

Dimitris Kalogeropoylos DRUGS

Heroin Needle and Powdered Heroin by Dimitris Kalogeropoylos

Sure, there were always the “burnout” kids at school, gobbling up any and all drugs available, often including marijuana.  But they also were the kids who started drinking in fifth grade on a regular basis, smoked cigarette and weed in middle school, and by the time they were in high school taking anything that could be ingested, snorted, or injected.  Many engaged in petty crimes from an early age.

These kids served as an example of what not to be.  And, we all knew who they were from even elementary school.

Looking at these kids, the lesson  wasn’t so much about not taking drugs, but more about being responsible, not hanging out with the “wrong crowd”, and keeping school as a high priority.  Kids did not want to end up like the “wastoid” kids who cut classes to smoke weed and drink 40s  by the train tracks.

These were the drug “misusers”, having a cold Budweiser at 9 AM on a Monday morning, instead of being in school, dealing with each day, waiting eagerly for Friday night  to do their thing, as the successful students who used marijuana or drank did.

As illegal as it may have been due to age restriction of alcohol and prohibition of marijuana, this was still a better choice than a Monday morning chaser followed by three joints.  Even better, many kids chose to avoid drugs and alcohol altogether, realizing such have no place in the life of a serious student.

"Track Marks" by Travis Leach. The Kids By The Train Tracks.

The Kids by the Tracks Were Lost. Image: “Track Marks” by Travis Leach.

The example kids by the tracks set left a frightful vision in the minds of many, indelibly scarring us with images of peers we both felt sorry for and were extremely vexed by.

In fairness, most of those kids had rather challenging backgrounds.  Violence at home, parental neglect, poverty, a poor attitude toward scholastic achievement attributable to a lack of good role models, were all factors.

These were the kids “running wild.”  Many ended up as heroin addicts, criminals, or alcoholics.  Some were the very children of addicts and alcoholics.  They were disadvantaged from the start, with too much time alone, too much freedom, and too little guidance and direction in life.

The majority of kids didn’t fit into this small group, whose members were rather special: oddly antisocial individuals clearly suffering from life’s pains, even at the age of fifteen.  They didn’t belong, and their story goes well beyond drug addiction or alcoholism, though these substances were often catalysts for disaster in their lives.  These kids were doomed from the start.  The Drug War was never going to save them.  But what about everyone else?

Kids were  told, essentially, don’t think about it.  Don’t weight the evidence.  Just say no, reflexively!  Unfortunately for Drug Warriors, but wonderful for the human race, we are an inquisitive lot, always trying to find answers.  The answers we provided to kids during the 80s Drug War were incomplete,  even rife with misinformation.

Further, kids never like being commanded without explanation.  Telling kids, “because I said so” may establish your authority as parent or teacher, but leaves little room for kids to gain any understanding from the situation.

When cigarettes and smoking became the focus of health advocates, the approach was as different as any could be from the War on Drugs.  Cigarettes were legal.  Kids even bought packs at local delis with little hassle.  That changed. Laws made it so.

Party Drinks by Flyover

Keg Parties Down by the River. Image: Party Drinks by Flyover

It would be more challenging, even still, to steer kids away from a legal, socially sanctioned substance that  a sympathetic  older friend or sibling could still buy for them, than would be the case with illegal drugs.  The stigma of illegality acts as a real deterrent, at least in some instances.  For the kids not already committing crimes, illegality is a real deterrent.

Most significantly,  the health effects of cigarettes were presented honestly.  Cigarettes were not conflated with arsenic, mothballs, or crack cocaine; the public service ads  aimed at presenting truthful, well-researched information, and powerfully.  Here, the mission to extinguish cigarettes diverged from the War on Drugs only a decade or so  before.

Relying on gruesome, but real, blunt imagery, commercials graphically depicting victims  of health conditions that developed from years of cigarette smoking, from yellow teeth to amputated digits, and a subsequent frank discussion on health effects managed to strongly curb interest in cigarette smoking among our nation’s youth.

They weren’t stupid.  Presented with the facts in all their truth, boldness, and vivid imagery, kids learned to say no to cigarettes.  We do teach critical thinking skills to our students; here was a chance to exercise such skills.

Image by Zach Petersen. Keg Party 50 Friends.

Keg Party 50 Friends by Zach Petersen

Health is now a significant part of most  adolescents’ concerns.  Kids do yoga, meditate, count their steps, go to the gym, and try to stay healthy because they have been taught that wellness is one of life’s greatest gifts.  This is true, and our culture’s present focus on self-help, improving habits and diet, and exercising and keeping active are incredible developments in our society.

Kids are not dumb.  If you lie to them , or mislead them, or tell them what to do without explaining why they should make such a choice, they will not listen.  Good intentions are not sufficient to save America’s youth from the current scourge of opiates, both pills and heroin, or from the creeping methamphetamine epidemic in some parts of our country.

Or, from “synthetic marijuana”, actually plants having nothing at all to do with marijuana, sprayed with noxious chemicals also not ever found naturally occurring in marijuana, and potentially lethal, at that.  (True Synthetic  marijuana, known as Marinol®,  is actually an FDA-approved drug for chemotherapy nausea.) The confusion continues…

Reefer Madness Film Poster

Reefer Madness Film Poster

Education is key.  Education entails learning, not reciting declarations to make a decision or promise without due consideration.  Kid should not be taking  any drugs, including alcohol and marijuana.  Kids should not smoke cigarettes.  They must learn WHY this is the case, if we mean to succeed with efforts to accomplish this.

The only means we have for attaining such goals, as recent history has shown, is by an honest, fact-filled presentation, framed objectively and dispassionately.  Seeing the man on the respirator in the anti-smoking PSA was chilling. And still is.

There is no arguing with effectiveness; time has proven that the approach we must take to substance abuse among adolescents must respect their right to make their own choices, yet keep the information flow high, so that such choices are informed by fact, and not fiction.  If we do anything else, we risk alienating our kids, and worse, causing them to lose trust in anything we say.

At this point, D.A.R.E. focuses more on teen empowerment and assertiveness than it had in the 1980s, which is key.  Role playing and more informed methods of teaching are utilized.  Kids need to become aware that the choice is theirs to make, and they can choose for themselves.  Assertiveness skills are crucial in life in so many ways, and can help steer a kid forward in life, avoiding the distractions along the path that can pull them away from their goals.

We’re learning.  As long as we avoid repeating past errors and build on prior successes, kids will gradually begin thinking of drug and alcohol abuse in terms adults would wish to see them thinking in.  Until that time, we must constantly refine even our noblest efforts.

(C) Copyright 2017 D Alban, H Miller. Authored by D Alban

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