Challenging Dogma - Spring 2011

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

The Failings of the Montana Meth Project and How it Can Be Resolved - Megan Watterson

The Montana Meth Project is a public health intervention aiming to thwart the adolescents of Montana from partaking in recreational consumption and abuse of methamphetamines (1). The Montana Meth Project uses graphic advertisements to portray the negative consequences of using methamphetamines, both on a regular and one-time basis, suggested by their slogan “not even once”, which infers that use of the illicit substance once can lead to severe addiction (2). This paper will first introduce the drug, methamphetamine, then explore advertising theory, and finally, explain the start-up of the Montana Meth Project. It will then further delve into the Montana Meth Project, unveil its failures, and propose implementation of a life skills training program for adolescents, therefore remedying the areas where the Montana Meth Project has been unsuccessful.

Methamphetamine’s Destructive Path

Methamphetamine is a dangerous and very addictive psycho-stimulant, affecting the central nervous system (3). Also known as crank, ice, crystal meth, meth, glass, and speed, methamphetamine (meth), can be smoked, snorted, injected, and taken orally (3). Abuse of this powerful narcotic can increase wakefulness, physical activity, heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, nerve damage, decrease appetite, and in large amounts can cause hyperthermia and seizures (3). Long-term consequences of meth are even more severe, including addiction, anxiety, paranoia, insomnia, confusion, mood disturbances, irreversible brain damage, weight loss, and extreme violent behavior (3). Common psychotic effects include visual and auditory hallucinations and delusions that can last from months to years (3). Arguably the most visually noticeable symptom of long-term meth abuse is the crumbling, blackening, rotting and obvious deterioration of the teeth, weight loss, and skin infections (4). The Montana Meth Project’s advertising concentrates on the effects on human appearance of long-term abuse, including dental corrosion and weight loss (5). Further effects include organ failure, stroke, brain hemorrhage, bone loss, liver damage, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s, skin sores, and infections, and death (6). Although they can resolve in as short of time as one week, withdrawal symptoms are severe, and could potentially be a factor contributing to why abstaining from use is so difficult for individuals (7). Withdrawal symptoms include depression, fatigue, insomnia, increased appetite, lack of energy and motivation, lucid, unpleasant dreams, sensory motor disturbances, craving for methamphetamine, and red, itchy eyes (7).

Methamphetamine is prescribed by physicians for the treatment of conditions such as narcolepsy, attention deficit disorder, and obesity (8). Meth can also be synthesized from a combination of over-the-counter drugs containing, pseudoephedrine, and corrosive household chemicals; homemade meth is manufactured by “cookers” or dealers and users of meth (6). Commonly constructed by cookers, “meth labs” consist of poorly designed chemistry sets, used to manufacture the narcotic, are highly flammable, result in byproducts of hazardous waste, and emit harmful fumes that can burn the eyes, throat, and nasal passages (6). These set-ups are extremely dangerous and require a specially trained task force to dismantle safely; not only is the abuse of meth dangerous, so are the illegal techniques of producing the harmful drug (6). The availability, ease of manufacture, and inexpensiveness of the drug make it common amongst both high and low socioeconomic communities (9). According the 2005 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, 4.3% of the U.S. population, age 12 and older, have tried methamphetamine at least once in their life (3). This number may not seem large, however, in 2002, there were over 240,000 self-admitted reports of methamphetamine use in Montana, which, at the time, had population of a little over 900,000 people (3, 10). Montana’s meth epidemic has been an ongoing problem and spurred the formation of the Montana Meth Project.

Advertising Theory and the Montana Meth Project

Advertising theory uses mass communication to sell a product, or in this instance, information and attitudes about this information, to the public (11). The impact of an advertisement upon an individual or the masses depends on the trustworthiness of the individual relaying the message, attractiveness of the individual, whether the message’s arguments appeal to emotions, and the vessel through which the message is delivered, visual and auditory stimulation tend to be the most effective (11). Advertising theory relays a promise to an individual, a promise that ensures the individual that if they follow the attitudes being portrayed, or buy the product being advertised, a negative consequence will not occur, or a positive consequence will occur (12). The audience then must see evidence of the certainty of this guarantee, for example, in the Montana Meth Project advertisements, adolescents are depicted trying meth then prostituting themselves for money to buy the drug. The attitude being forced upon the audience is that if one tries meth, one will have the negative consequence of having to sell one’s body in order to support one’s drug habit. Advertising theory relies upon people’s personal core values echoing a certain principle core value held by the advertisement (12). In the Montana Meth Project advertisements, the core value is that people are against prostituting themselves, therefore if they do not use meth they will not have to resort to such means. According to advertising theory, this depiction is thought to change the attitudes of adolescents and dissuade them from using meth (12).

The Montana Meth Project employs the use to advertising theory to educate the residents of Montana on the dangers of meth. The Project’s aim is to deter adolescents of Montana, ages ranging from thirteen to seventeen years of age from using the drug. Launched in 2005, and financed by billionaire Tom Siebel, the Montana Meth Project uses graphic advertisements describing meth users as unhygienic, dangerous, untrustworthy and exploitative, as a means to thwart the youth of Montana from trying the drug (1). The unnecessarily morbid advertisements show users under the influence, prostituting themselves for drug money, being raped and threatening to kill their parents (1). The youth of Montana are subjected to these disturbing advertisements anywhere from three to five times a week, in the form of television commercials, radio ads, billboard signs, and print media (1). The $5.5 million campaign has landed another $2 million in public funding from the state senate, as well as an additional bonus of almost $1.5 million from federal funding (1). The Montana Meth Project boasts positive effects on the public from its implementation, a statement which the data simply cannot support (2). The people of Montana have been distracted from the unsatisfactory data by the notable supporters of the campaigns, whom of which include Montana’s Governor, Brian Schweitzer, Attorney General Mike McGrath, and the White House Drug Czar, John Walters (13). With the heads of the state, law enforcement, and drug experts’ support, it is easy to see why the people of Montana have been blinded. The Montana Meth Project is a public health campaign that was enacted with the best intentions; however, its stated success is a severe fallacy as evidenced by a substandard sample population from the public, a misrepresentation of data, and its gruesome, exaggerated, fear-based advertisements (1).

Montana Meth Project’s Unsatisfactory Population Sample

The Montana Meth Project used their own recruited focus groups to participate in surveys; however, the sample population chosen was not representative of Montana’s true population (1). The surveys were given over the internet to adolescents, ages 12-17, young adults, ages 18-24, and to parents of adolescents (1). This may seem like a sufficient sample in order to measure the Montana Meth Project’s success, however, only 50% of Montana’s population is even connected to the internet, meaning that only 50% of Montanans were eligible to participate in the surveys (2). Furthermore, studies have proven that internet users tend to be more educated, this fact skews the data obtained from these surveys and standardizes the sample population further, a undesirable characteristics for generalization of public health interventions (1). Of the people that were able to be surveyed, 75% were female, making it apparent that the sample population was not truly representative of the residents of Montana (1). This is especially troubling because it has been found that meth use is dependent upon characteristics such as gender and education (1). The data obtained from these surveys cannot be relied upon because they cannot be successfully compared to Montana’s true adolescent population and yield valid statistics (1).

Montana Meth Project’s Misrepresentation of Data

Founder of the Montana Meth Project, Tom Siebel claims that according to their own surveys distributed amongst Montana’s youth, meth use among adolescents has decreased dramatically due to the initiation of the Project (2). However, according to the National Youth Risk Behavior survey, a nationally accredited survey provided by the Center for Disease Control and administered to all U.S. high school students, meth use had been steadily declining for seven years before the Montana Meth Project was broadcasted (13). In 1999, 13.5% of Montana’s high school students reported use of meth to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey; in 2005, before the Montana Meth Project was implemented, this figure dropped to 2.8% (2). Though there was a slightly larger decrease in reported meth use following the years the Montana Meth Project was enacted (2005 to 2008); the results of a statistical analysis concluded that the decrease in meth use in the years between 2005 and 2008, are statistically insignificant and that the Montana Meth Project has had no effect on the already downward trend of meth use among Montana’s youth (2, 14). One theory to explain the heightened decline in meth use coinciding with the introduction of the Montana Meth Project is the enactment of state laws (1). In July of 2005, Montana state laws restricted the sale of over-the-counter drugs that contain pseudoephedrine, an important ingredient in the synthesis of meth (1). The aforementioned theory is further supported by data from the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which found that according to adolescents, the ease of obtaining meth decreased from 41% in 2005, to 30% in 2008, a decline of 11% in just three years (1). When statistically analyzed and properly documented, the adolescents’ use of the illicit substance has made it apparent that the data published by the Montana Meth Project is neither true, nor complete.

Other statements made by the Montana Meth Project are in discrepancy with the data from the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey. Before implementation of the Montana Meth Project, 93% of adolescents surveyed believed that there was a “great” or “moderate” risk involved in trying meth once or twice; six months into broadcast of Montana Meth Project’s advertisements, that number dropped to 87% (2). Likewise, the amount of adolescents surveyed maintaining that they saw no risk in trying meth or in using it regularly increased from 3% to 8% six months into the start of Montana Meth Project’s advertisements (2).

The Montana Meth Project also claims that the people of Montana are more aware of the negative consequences associated with the use of meth (1). Contrary to this statement, it was found that six months into the advertising campaign, people reported that single-time use of meth leads to an increase in only 1 of 14 negative consequences previously measured (1). The percent of adolescents that reported they strongly approve of the use of the drug increased 4 times its original percentage since the airing of the advertisements (14). In fact, statistical analysis of the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey concludes that meth use for non-whites and adolescents has actually increased after the adoption of the Montana Meth Project (14). When adolescents were surveyed about their perceptions of the risks associated with meth use, it was found that their perceptions of the negative consequences decreased for 8 of the 14 surveyed consequences, since the initiation of the Project (1).

These statistics directly oppose Montana Meth Project’s goals and claims of success associated with the campaign. The Montana Meth Project is having the reverse effect on the adolescents of Montana than intended. Knowing these facts, the Montana Meth Project should be amended immediately for the safety and well-being of the public.

Montana Meth Project’s Scare Tactics

Scare tactics, or advertisements that seek to change a behavior by way of threatening consequences, are employed by campaigns because of the emotion they invoke in the public (15). However, scare tactics that invoke too much fear can result in anxiety, and can be counterproductive in behavior change (15). It has been found that prolonged exposure to fear-inducing advertisements result in the public becoming unmoved by the advertisements, and increasing negative public opinions of the ads, a problem now found in the Montana Meth campaign (15). The Montana Meth Project has claimed that their advertisements are successful and impact the adolescents in a positive way; this claim has been proven false by the adolescents themselves (1). Up to 50% of adolescents surveyed believe that the advertisements exaggerate the risks of meth (1). When Native American adolescents, a high-risk group for use of meth, were surveyed 75% of them indicated that the advertisements are exaggerated and laughable (1). These advertisements have decreased their influence among adolescents, because once adolescents no longer believe the Montana Meth Project is a credible source, they will be less apt to listen to the advertisements’ messages (2).

The consequences for the public from the use of fear campaigns can be dire (15). Viewers of the unpleasant ads will design a coping mechanism to deal with the negative feelings that are brought on by the advertisements (15). Coping mechanisms can include tuning out the message, blunting, or ignoring the specific threat of the message, suppression of the messages’ relation to the viewer’s own life, and argumentation, or finding reasons as to why the message is inaccurate or exaggerated, as seen in the Montana Meth Project (15). Reactance is another negative consequence of the employment of scare tactics in public health advertising (16). Reactance is the adoption of a behavior in opposition to the one being advocated in the advertisement message; therefore, the when the ads of the Montana Meth Project try to scare adolescents away from meth, adolescents gravitate toward the drug to assert their freedom and independence (16). The statistics previously discussed in the “misrepresentation of data” section, support this reactance theory in that meth use has risen since enactment of the Montana Meth Project.

The scare tactics employed by the Montana Meth Project have not been found to sway the adolescents of Montana from meth use. The use of scare tactics in any public health campaign can have negative consequences and are not successful in accomplishing favorable behavior change (16).

Proposition of a Life Skills Training (LST) Theory

Substance use and abuse is a learned behavior through modeling and repetitive exposure to others’ behaviors, influences from peers, family members, and the media (17). Skills to aid in coping with the pressure from peers and other influences can be taught through encouragement of self-esteem and self-efficacy (17). The Life Skills Training (LST) theory takes the approach of educating adolescents in schools about the skills, knowledge, expectations, and right attitudes that will aid them in resisting the temptation to give into peer pressured drug use (17). LST also aims to improve adolescents’ social skills, to increase their self-esteem and encourage the development of personality characteristics that are associated with decreased risk of substance abuse (17). The LST program itself consists of 12 curriculum units to be taught during multiple class periods (17). The units include a major learning goal, engaging activities, providing knowledge of the effects of the drug, and will result in measurable student outcomes (17). The purpose of the program is to equip adolescents with the knowledge, self-esteem, and social skills required to successfully resist peer pressure to do drugs. LST provides adolescents tools to help them cope with their anxiety and how to communicate with others (17).

In studies that have used the LST theory, data has found that adolescents that have partaken in the LST program have obtained higher knowledge concerning substance abuse and consequences, lower positive attitudes towards illicit drug use, and significantly higher social skills, self-efficacy, and self-esteem compared to their peers (17).

Implementing A Life Skills Training Approach

A LST model should be implemented in place of the Montana Meth Project. Judging by the statistics previously analyzed, the adolescents of Montana need an immediate and drastic intervention. This proposed school-based program has been proven to reduce drug use up to 80% (18). The LST program would be present in all Montana high schools as part of the schools’ core curriculum. Students would first be surveyed on their own use, knowledge of, and attitudes towards meth. Then, they would be surveyed on their views of their self-worth and efficacy; following this, 12 curriculum units on meth would be taught over approximately 17 class sessions. The units would focus on the mechanism of the drug, short-term and long-term consequences of use, coping with anxiety, depression, and seeking help, social skills training, engaging classroom activities, and enactments of real-life situations. After the completion of the program, the students would again be surveyed on the previous perimeters and the statistics would then be analyzed in order to measure the success of the program. If a LST model was introduced in all Montana schools it would allow for a sufficient population sample, allow for more reliable data and statistics on success rates, and provide the tools necessary to make correct decisions when faced with situations, rather than using ineffective scare tactics to influence behavior.

LST Provides A Sufficient, Measurable Sample Population

Montana Meth Project did not take an accurate sample before implementing the campaign, therefore making any measurements of success taken after launch of the program null. Instilling a LST program would certainly provide a sufficient survey pool because the population would consist of all Montana high school students. The LST program can affect a wide array of adolescents, regardless of level of risk, therefore saturating all adolescents with knowledge to prevent and aid in treating meth use (19). The LST program has the ability to reach all of Montana’s youth, instead of relying upon television, internet, or even billboard and print advertisements. Without having to depend on unreliable means of communication, all adolescents of Montana would be involved both in the surveys and in the curriculum, ensuring the education of and attitude change in Montana’s youth.

LST Program Will Provide Measurable Results

Misrepresentation of data will not be a problem in the LST program, since every school curriculum will be geared toward the LST, there will be a complete representation of Montana’s youth, therefore statistics on the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey will reflect upon the success of the LST program (19). LST provides real, true, measurable data by surveying students before and after the intervention. A gleaming characteristic of this type of intervention is that it has the capacity to be effective in prevention of other substance use (19). The findings from multiple studies conclude that prevention approaches that concentrate on psychosocial factors are more effective than ones that ignore the psychological and social aspect of drug use (19). In addition to LST enlightening adolescents on a multitude of levels including psychological, social, and intellectual levels, it does not allow adolescents to grow weary of the curriculum and disregard its message (19). A flaw of the Montana Meth Project is that adolescents eventually grow weary of and find humor in the advertisements being presented to them, since LST will be a part of the learning process and only 12 curriculum units, it is less likely for the adolescents to tire of the subject (19). Furthermore, the LST will provide long-term measurable data about the competency of adolescents completing the program; the adolescents will be able to be measured on their knowledge of the drug, their reactions to real-life situations, and their sense of self-efficacy and self-esteem (20). The ability to have long-term success and measurable outcomes is a quality that the Montana Meth Project is lacking; with the implication of an LST program, Montana will have a sufficient sample population, which will be accurately measured to ensure truthful statistics.

LST Program Will Empower Adolescents

The Life Skills Training program has the ability to teach adolescents about meth, rather than solely presenting them with frightening advertisements that depict extreme consequences (19). LST programs educate the adolescents on how to repudiate use of the drug with confidence and present adolescents with possible real-life situations (19). Life Skills Training provides adolescents with skills to cope with and resist extraneous influences, rather than scaring them into not partaking in drug use (20). Giving adolescents the power to control any situation they may find themselves in boosts their self-esteem and confidence. Life Skills Training leaves adolescents with a feeling of accomplishment, rather than a feeling of self-loathing or solemnity that melancholic advertisements invoke. The empowerment Montana youths will retain from the LST program will aid them in reaching their potential as students and as members of society.

A Summary of Arguments

It is blatantly obvious by the subpar sample population, butchering of statistics, and fear tactics utilized, that the claimed success of the Montana Meth Project is a delusion. Adolescents are at an impressionable age, instead of providing them only with consequences of poor choices; public health interventions should be instilling them with ideas of reward for employing the correct behavior. Implementing a Life Skill Training theory in place of the Montana Meth Project will rectify the inadequate sample population by involving all adolescents of Montana, eradicate unsupported statistics by providing true data from all adolescents, and abolish exposure to barbaric advertisements and make them unnecessary by empowering adolescents to make thoughtful, educated decisions. Where the Montana Meth Project has failed the adolescent population of Montana, a Life Skill Training approach would succeed.


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