Battling Speed

A new Tucson anti-meth campaign is modeled after a Montana project that had counterproductive results

The Tucson Police Department's Counter-Narcotics Alliance, in conjunction with several community alliances, is ready to launch Tucson's first full-scale, multimedia anti-methamphetamine campaign this week.

The Tucson campaign, which mirrors the Montana Meth Project, would attempt to dissuade children ages 12 to 17, as well as adults, from abusing meth, whether they're first-time or longtime users.

But there's a potential problem: A study of the similar program in Montana showed that fewer teenagers were concerned about meth use after the ad campaign was in place for roughly half a year.

Seven months after the Montana Meth Project was launched in September 2005, the organizers released a study showing 96 percent of Montana teenagers associated "great or moderate risk" with meth use before the ads ran; afterward, only 91 percent of the teens thought meth use was that risky--a 5 percentage-point decrease in the number of teens who thought that using meth was dangerous.

Nick Domitrovich, program manager of the Montana Meth Project, says that the results of the study are actually "pretty encouraging."

"Kids in the highest risk categories were more polarized by the campaign, which is common," he said of the results from the April 19 Use and Attitudes Survey.

The MMP chose to use shock-value-style ads after much testing and studying results from research groups, Domitrovich says. "Some of the things (kids) respond to are changes in physical appearance," he says. "Those were the ads they responded most strongly to, so that's what we go with."

Tucson's ad campaign will employ these shock-value tactics as well.

In the Montana study, 46 percent of teens thought "strongly" and "somewhat" that, in at least one of the shock advertisements, the risks of meth use were overly exaggerated. The ad they were shown, known as the "Bathtub" commercial, portrays a young, attractive teenage girl showering as she encounters her "future-self" in the bathtub--bloody, strung-out and addicted to meth. The hollow, vapid "future-self" screeches, "Don't use meth, not even once," and the commercial ends with blood-tinged water running down the bathtub drain.

TPD Capt. David Neri, in the counter-narcotics alliance division, is helping to head the ad campaign in Tucson. The campaign will include six professionally made commercial spots, for which prime-time space has been both purchased and donated, that will run for a whole year, Neri says.

"We also have a cadre of support media that serves to support the campaign," he says. "Radio spots, ads on the sides of buses, newspaper ads." The commercials were slated to air on a loop during the kickoff event for the campaign on Oct. 26.

"Our focal point is really on children," he says, "especially kids who are away from the mainstream resources, not kids that end up at organizations like The Giving Tree or Casa de los Niños, but the kids who are getting dumped on doorsteps and street corners because of meth use."

The Tucson ad campaign will succeed, Neri says, because it is more on target than the Montana project was.

"We have an even better understanding of users, of their motives and methods, because we've been in contact with recovering users who have agreed to cooperate with us and help out," he says. "It's been researched locally, and it will be specifically designed to impact the local problem as we understand it."

Neri admits that the true impact of the ad campaign won't be known until they conduct their own research on how the project has affected meth use in Tucson.

"We'll have to let it run for a while before we start researching," he says.

He's confident in the project, because it's targeted to a different age group than the Montana project, he says. The demographic of Tucson's meth problem shows a majority of users are white males age 16 to 61, Neri says, so the ad campaign will have a more "adult-audience focus," even though he says it's targeted for ages 12 and older.

The Montana Meth Project was targeted specifically toward "Montana youth ages 12 to 17," according to their Use and Attitudes Survey.

"A really significant difference between our campaign and theirs will be that we have a good handle on how we define the meth problem in metropolitan Pima County," Neri says.

Funding for the ad campaign isn't coming out of Tucson taxpayer pockets--at least not directly. The Tucson City Council approved the police department's project to be included in the city's funding agenda last year, says Neri. This allowed the project to seek funding from the federal government. The counter-narcotics alliance received a federal grant of $200,000 last November, Neri says, but the money didn't actually become available for use until May of this year, and they started spending it around August, he says.

The Tucson ad campaign seeks to be different, partly by putting a new face on the campaign--literally. Many of the advertisements will feature Libby Wright's pictures of children affected by meth use.

Wright, director of The Giving Tree Outreach Program, Inc. says she has literally hundreds of pictures that she's taken over the years.

"I think that (this ad campaign) is going to have the effect of educating the community," she says.

The "Faces of Meth" ad campaign--depicting graphic before-and-after pictures of adult meth users--wasn't effective, Wright says, because they didn't show the faces of the children who go along with the meth problem.

"I think that, having worked with children for more than 30 years, this is the worst drug to ever hit the streets," she says. "It has the most devastating effect on children. If we're going to, as a community, help these children, we need to be educated about it."

Wright says that her organization sees about 50 children every week who come in and have been affected in some way by meth use. They are provided clothing, toiletries and shelter.

"It's one thing for an adult to use meth, but life is about choices, and kids don't have a choice," she says.

Wright will also be attending the Oct. 26 kickoff event, and she's bringing about 15 of her photos of children who have been affected by meth.

"I've been educated in this field, and I learned a lot in school, but it's nothing compared to what I learned raising (foster) children," says Wright, who has been a foster parent to more than 200 children.

The counter-narcotics alliance and organizations like The Giving Tree aren't the only groups working to try and quell the meth problem in Tucson, especially in the Oak Flower and Dodge Flower neighborhoods, which are in Karin Uhlich's Ward 3.

Community projects have been launched in these two neighborhoods that intend to "take back the neighborhood from people using meth," says George Pettit, an administrative assistant to Uhlich in Ward 3.

Pettit said as far as he knew, Uhlich was "not aware" of the ad campaign, but that her office is promoting efforts to reduce meth use in their ward and in their neighborhoods.

Part of the problem, Pettit says, is that about 70 percent of the neighborhoods are rental properties; one of the strategies is to approach owners of rental properties and make them aware of the costs and consequences of allowing meth users to rent property from them.

Even though the projects have been going on for a few months now, Pettit says some neighborhoods have actually witnessed a recent increase in crime activity.

"Small, petty crimes like swiping tools; a lot of these crimes are meth-related, what they steal is cheap enough stuff to just get their next fix," he says.

Meth use and availability has increased throughout the United States, and methamphetamine users now represent more than 7 percent of admissions to drug- and alcohol-treatment facilities, according to the Office of National Drug Control Policy's Web site.

From 1994 to 2004, the number of admissions to drug and alcohol treatment in which methamphetamine was the primary drug being abused increased from 33,443 in 1994 to 129,079 in 2004, according to the Web site.

Arizona is no different, with evidence of meth use increasing drastically. According to a study released Oct. 12, methamphetamine hospitalizations have increased by about 550 percent in Pima County from 2000 to 2005, by about 243 percent in Maricopa County and by about 369 percent in the rest of Arizona.

The study, conducted by James Cunningham, an associate professor with the UA Department of Family and Community Medicine, also showed that methamphetamine-related hospitalizations have surpassed cocaine- and heroin-related admissions for the first time since the inception of the monitoring program in 1989.

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