Last week, Barron's rolled out its annual list of the world's most influential philanthropic ventures, and Tom Siebel's Meth Project, first launched in Montana five years ago, made it to No. 3. The project's prominent position on the list is just as shocking as its omnipresent and lurid billboards depicting faux junkies offering quickies in truck stop restrooms.
Those junkies find themselves in impressive company on Barron's list. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which has given nearly $24 billion to global health and development projects since 1994, ranks No. 1. The William J. Clinton Foundation, which through its Clinton Global Initiative has raised $63 billion over the last five years to tackle climate change, poverty alleviation, global health and education, is slotted at No. 7—four spots behind The Meth Project.
The project's high ranking is especially surprising considering recent studies that suggest Siebel's admirable attempt at reducing meth use may not be all that it's cranked up to be.
A University of Washington study published in the Journal of Health Economics in September, conducted by Lewistown native D. Mark Anderson, found the multimillion-dollar advertising campaign "has had no discernable impact on meth use."
"When accounting for a preexisting downward trend in meth use, effects on meth use are statistically indistinguishable from zero," Anderson wrote.
He's not the only one questioning the project's efficacy. Two years ago, a review published in Prevention Science found that following six months of exposure to the ads, three times as many teenagers reported that using meth is not a risky behavior and teenagers were four times more likely to strongly approve of meth use.
Of course, The Meth Project touts different statistics. It claims Montana's meth-use ranking has plummeted from fifth in the nation to 39th in the last five years, with teen meth use declining 63 percent. That's why the project has expanded to seven other states.
But The Meth Project's missing the point. As scientists have pointed out—and as even Gov. Brian Schweitzer has acknowledged—meth use in Montana would be declining with or without the campaign. The high-profile scare tactic simply isn't money well spent.
Perhaps it's time for Siebel to turn his attention to a far more insidious and deadly affliction: prescription drugs. According to the state, prescription drug abuse contributes to the deaths of more than 300 Montanans each year, making it 15 times more deadly than meth, heroin and cocaine combined. And Montana kids report the third-highest rate of prescription drug abuse in the country. Now that's an ugly picture.