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Why the Montana Meth Project isn’t all it’s cranked up to be

Never has a so-called picture of success sported such a gruesome mug. It was one year ago this September that the Montana Meth Project launched its efforts to transform the face of methamphetamine’s impact on the youth of this state. All at once, images of young faux junkies and their nightmarish trappings became omnipresent on Montana’s billboards and airwaves and in print media as the $5.5 million campaign, bankrolled by billionaire Tom Siebel, rocketed into place as the state’s largest advertiser. The citizens and the media of Montana have responded, by and large, with gusto for the high-profile effort. Most recently, more than 650 teens encouraged by $300,000 in prize money are holding their breath for the Aug. 9 results of the Paint the State contest, for which they created public art incorporating the campaign’s “Not Even Once” slogan. Ghastly images and draconian messages—“Curiosity killed the kid,” for instance—have turned up in the form of painted barns and cows, emaciated sculptures and crashed cars throughout our communities.

On the cusp of its first anniversary and the autumn launch of a third round of ads, the Montana Meth Project’s aggressive, confident and moneyed approach has been lauded as a raving success in more than 500 media stories in publications as close to home as the Missoulian, as prestigious as The New York Times, and as far afield as the UK’s Guardian. Montana officials at every level have cozied up to the project and are now working to secure public funding to sustain it, while the state’s congressional delegation is looking for ways to export it beyond Montana’s borders through federal grants. Arizona and Utah are hastily trying to import the ads, encouraged by their dramatic profile and the unanimous support they’ve received from politicians and news coverage alike. The Montana Meth Project has successfully developed a public image of itself as not only a bighearted offering from a deep-pocketed man, but also as a revolutionary and, more important, successful attempt to rein in Montana’s meth problem.

But look closer and that picture changes. Conspicuously absent from the discussion are simmering concerns about the Meth Project’s shock-and-awe approach, as well as unfavorable data the campaign has collected through commissioned surveys about its own impact. Most observers seem all too eager to latch onto the Montana Meth Project as a stylish solution to a difficult problem, though some are starting to question that popular logic. It’s not easy to find people in Montana willing to publicly take a hard look at the project—though some will do so off the record—but conversations with politicians and drug prevention officials in the states now on the brink of duplicating the campaign reveal plenty about the Montana Meth Project you wouldn’t know by reading its press.

Read an article about the Montana Meth Project and you’re guaranteed to walk away with the impression that untold but certainly increasing numbers of Montana teens are succumbing to the ravages of meth, and that the campaign is Montana’s new secret weapon for turning that tide.

“We’re losing a generation of productive people,” Gov. Brian Schweitzer told The New York Times for its February feature on the project. “My God, at the rate we’re going, we’re going to have more people in jail than out of jail in 20 years.” At its unveiling, Rep. Denny Rehberg praised the project as a brilliant solution, saying, “Tom Siebel has hit on the head what no other public agency has figured out.” In April, Montana newspapers reprinted Associated Press stories following the Arizona Republic’s lead in reporting the unattributed and untrue claim that the campaign here “has saturated the airwaves, helping to reduce meth use among teens by as much as 30 percent.” At an April press conference Siebel announced, “We’re starting to move the meter on meth,” citing data from a commissioned survey that gauged the efficacy of the campaign and found an increase in discussions about the drug among teens and their parents, and growth in the number of teens who perceive specific risks, like tooth decay and brain damage, accompanying meth use.

What you won’t learn from project officials, the mainstream media or politicians is that meth use by Montana teens, the specific target of the Montana Meth Project, has been on the decline for seven steady years. You won’t hear that the project’s own survey, conducted once before the ads ran and again six months into their run, found a statistically significant increase in the number of teens who said they saw no risk in trying meth once or twice. Nor will you learn of the survey’s finding that large numbers of teens report that the project’s ads exaggerate meth’s risks, or that decades of drug prevention research has found similar scare tactics to be ineffective.

In 1999, 13.5 percent of Montana high-schoolers reported meth use to the National Youth Risk Behavior Survey, which is conducted every other year and didn’t begin collecting meth figures until 1999. That figure dropped to 12.6 percent in 2001, 9.3 percent in 2003 and 8.3 percent in 2005. Among seventh- and eighth-graders, the same span saw a drop from 7.5 percent in 1999 to 2.8 percent in 2005, the year the Montana Meth Project launched its ads, and the most recent year for which numbers are available.

Local trends mirror national movement too, though teen usage in Montana remains slightly higher than in the rest of the country. Nationwide, 9.1 percent of surveyed teens reported meth usage in 1999, dropping to 6.2 percent in 2005.

At the two state teen drug treatment centers, 9 percent of residents report meth as their primary drug of choice, according to data provided by Chemical Dependency Services Chief Joan Cassidy.

For context, usage rates of other drugs are much higher. In 2005, 35 percent of Montana high schoolers reported binge drinking within the last month, compared to 25 percent nationally. A full 42 percent of Montana teens admitted to smoking marijuana at some point or another; 15 percent said they’d used inhalants; 9 percent reported cocaine use.

The Montana Meth Project’s striking appeal and purported success almost hooked Arizona State Sen. John Huppenthal. Like Montana, Arizona—where 8.8 percent of teens reported having used meth in the 2005 National Youth Risk Behavior Survey—is looking for a solution. Earlier this year, Huppenthal introduced a bill seeking to fund a $4 million public meth deglamorization campaign after seeing dramatic results from an anti-tobacco campaign in the state.

Huppenthal, acting on a tip from the Arizona Department of Health Services, looked into the Montana Meth Project and thought at first it might be just what teens in his state needed.

Then the Republican took a closer look and changed his mind.

“I ended up dropping support of my own bill, and it failed,” he says. For the most part, he says, it was a close look at the meth project’s own data that caused Huppenthal’s reversal.

Before the ads ran, 93 percent of teens said there was “great” or “moderate” risk involved in trying meth once or twice, but after six months of watching ads, that number dropped to 87 percent, a decline labeled statistically significant by researchers. On the flip side, teens who saw no risk in giving meth a try or in using it regularly increased from 3 to 8 percent.

It’s worth taking a moment to discuss the survey itself and the care with which conclusions about it should be drawn: The Meth Project commissioned national survey researchers Millward Brown for the Montana Meth Use & Attitudes Survey, which was conducted online in August 2005 and February 2006, with sample sizes of about 1,200 and 1,400, respectively. Survey responders, which included teens age 12-17, young adults, parents and American Indian teens, were solicited through Internet banner ads and recruited to the survey website by phone. Kathy Kuipers, a UM sociology professor who specializes in methodology, says it’s dangerous to draw many conclusions from the survey given the participants’ self-selection. In a state where only 50 percent of the population is connected to the Internet, many segments of society may not be represented. How that impacts the survey data is unknowable, but important nonetheless.

“I would be really concerned about what types of people aren’t included in this,” Kuipers says.

Given that caveat, the survey data are the only available numbers by which to judge the program’s efficacy.

Huppenthal says he was especially turned off by survey findings that up to 50 percent of teens said particular ads exaggerated meth’s dangers. Once kids think you’re overblowing the drug’s risk, he says, you’ve lost their trust and decreased your influence. Among American Indian teens, who were surveyed as a separate group, exaggeration was a much bigger issue: 47 percent said the “Bathtub” ad, where a young woman in the shower screams bloody murder when she’s joined by a scabby, strung-out version of herself, was over the top, and a full 75 percent said the same of “Tim,” the radio ad where a young man tells about losing his job and everything he owns within a month of his first high.

When he talked with Siebel to learn what the campaign was doing to alter its approach in light of this not-so-glowing data, Huppenthal says, he was disappointed by the response.

“I wasn’t sure that they had read and understood their own research,” he says. “I wasn’t sure they were of a mindset where they even wanted to use the research to change their campaign, even tough it’s screaming to be changed.”

Others in Arizona disagree with Huppenthal’s take. In April, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard said he planned to import the Montana Meth Project and have it up and running by this August.

“I just don’t think we have time to waste,” he told the Associated Press. Since then, Arizona officials have been working out the details. They flew to Montana in April and Siebel and Montana Attorney General Mike McGrath returned the visit in mid-June. Siebel has pledged to offer the campaign to other states at no cost, with the stipulation that they not alter the ads. Though Arizona has since fallen behind its August goal, Goddard spokeswoman Andrea Esquer says “We’re determined to bring it out to Arizona.”

At the bottom of Huppenthal’s concerns about exaggeration is the fear that these anti-meth ads may replicate other unsuccessful antidrug campaigns. For example, a 2003 government-funded study of the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s 1999-2003 National Anti-Drug Media Campaign found that though about 70 percent of youth and parents had been exposed to the campaign’s antidrug messages at least once every week, “There [was] little evidence of direct favorable Campaign efforts on youth.”

Similarly, thanks to its oodles of private capital, the Montana Meth Project has been able to reach 70 percent of Montana teens an average of three times a week, which is one sign of success repeatedly cited by the campaign. But just what that high level of saturation is leaving behind in terms of teens’ understanding of and beliefs about meth isn’t as well known.

Jeff Linkenbach, director of the Most of Us Institute in Bozeman and an MSU faculty researcher, is one of the few prevention experts in Montana who will publicly voice his concerns about the Montana Meth Project. Though he commends Siebel’s contribution and intentions, he’s skeptical of the project’s approach, which he calls “health terrorism” in its attempt to “scare the health into people.”

“Decades of research have demonstrated again and again that scare tactics don’t work and often backfire,” Linkenbach says.

The notion that saturated public awareness equals success is characteristic of a private advertising agency perspective, Linkenbach says, but strikingly different from the broad-based approach required by a public health issue stemming from social and economic ills, not a mere lack of awareness that meth can ruin lives.

Linkenbach also says the project’s attempts to raise awareness by linking first-time usage to extraordinary consequences ventures into the Reefer Madness realm.

“Although the message that you shouldn’t use meth even once is absolutely the right one to communicate, we need to make sure we don’t obfuscate that by alluding to the ‘fact’ that you can get addicted with a one-time use, because that’s not in the scientific literature,” Linkenbach says.

“What happens is we erode our credibility with our audience because their experience doesn’t bear out [the ads’] reality,” he says.

Others, too, are concerned the one-hit-and-you’re-hooked message won’t play well to young audiences who know, from firsthand or secondhand knowledge, that that isn’t strictly true.

“Very few of the meth users actually end up looking the way they do in the Montana Meth Project,” says Pat Fleming, director of Salt Lake County’s Division of Substance Abuse in Utah. “We know that some kids may say, ‘Did you see those crazy ads? I use it on weekends and I’m not a meth fiend who’s robbing laundry mats or stealing money.’”

Fleming sits on the meth initiative taskforce convened by Utah Gov. John Huntsman, who’s intent on bringing the Montana Meth Project to his state. In June, Huntsman invited Siebel to pitch the idea to a roomful of potential donors who could back an incarnation of the project there.

The task force voted unanimously July 18 to pursue some anti-meth effort, but is still circling on what form it will take. Fleming says the group is evenly split among those who support Siebel’s approach, those who oppose it, and those who remain ambivalent.

Another prevention community concern cited by Fleming is the Montana Meth Project’s depiction of addicts as intensely repulsive figures, and how that can impact the general public’s perception of meth treatment and its usefulness.

“It further characterizes drug users as these fiend demons that people are afraid of,” Fleming says. “What lawmakers are going to want to do, and it mirrors the reaction of the average citizen, is lock that guy up. And that’s the opposite of the direction we need to go.”

It’s no wonder Montana’s drug prevention community is collectively hesitant to voice the potential drawbacks of the Montana Meth Project’s approach. After all, how often do millions of dollars drop from the sky in a private, goodwill effort to improve one of Montana’s ugly societal problems? Even those who sound cautionary notes about the project are quick and careful to thank Siebel for throwing his money and influence toward a compelling cause.

Besides drawing attention to meth abuse, the high-profile nature of the Montana Meth Project may also have the collateral effort of drawing attention to other drug prevention efforts in the state, say some who are thankful for Siebel’s efforts, though skeptical of the campaign’s approach and its claims of success.

Montana media, though, don’t have such a logical excuse for not taking a decently hard look at the state’s largest advertiser, particularly as public officials embark on a path to find public dollars to sustain and expand the effort.

And yet, in the dozens of stories that have appeared around the state about the project, there’s no evidence of any such analytical attitude. Though the Montana Meth Project released all the data from its survey, only the skin-deep signs of success offered up by project officials at the press conference made it into the news. Most every story parrots state officials’ claims about an increasingly ravaging meth epidemic without any mention of empirical data that indicates otherwise, as well as conclusions that the meth project is a model solution.

But Montana media isn’t alone.

A national report examining the meth epidemic released in May by the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group advocating sentencing law reform, highlighted escalating media coverage of meth despite steadily low rates of meth use nationwide. For the last five years, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Service’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health has consistently found 0.2 percent of Americans reported meth use within a month of the survey. Four times as many Americans reported regular cocaine use; 30 times more reported regular marijuana use and 90 times more reported binge drinking, according to the report’s data. Seizure of meth labs nationwide fell by more than 30 percent nationwide in 2005—66 percent in Montana specifically—and the leading provider of workplace drug testing reported a 31 percent decrease in positive meth tests in the first half of 2006, and a 45 percent decrease since 2004.

The same period has seen increasing amounts of ever-more intense media coverage. In August 2005, Newsweek called meth an “epidemic” and a “plague” and slapped the headline “America’s Most Dangerous Drug” on its cover.

“A general lack of critical analysis coupled with widespread reporting of opinions masquerading as facts have resulted in a national media that has been complicit in perpetuating a myth of a methamphetamine epidemic,” says Ryan King, author of the report.

Jack Shafer, editor at large for slate.com and a media critic and longtime drug reporter, says the public also plays a role.

“There’s no constituency out there who’s demanding accurate reporting about drugs,” Shafer says. “The first time somebody allows in print in a Montana newspaper that actually there are many people who’ve used the drug once and not become stone-cold addicts—if the editor can even get it into the paper—the readership is going to go insane.”

And so instead, the vast majority of articles you’ll find are based primarily on anecdotal stories with extreme dramatic appeal, which relays one aspect of the meth issue, but falls well short of the full story.

Imagine, says Shafer, if reporters used a different kind of anecdote to tell the same story.

“If I were to find the many thousands of people in Montana who did methamphetamine once or twice and never touched it again, and they were my anecdotes for the story and I used that to lead to the conclusion that, therefore, methamphetamine is harmless, I would be doing the truth a real disservice…There’s a narrative arc that’s easy for journalists to hitchhike onto and write an easy story, but it doesn’t take much thinking or work, and it doesn’t serve the truth,” Shafer says.

It’s worth noting that Montana’s statewide media are substantial partners in bringing the Montana Meth Project, the state’s largest single advertiser, to the public.

Every minute of radio and TV broadcasting, every billboard and every newspaper ad that the project purchases is matched one-to-one by media entities. The project’s 30,000 radio minutes, 30,000 TV minutes, 150 pages of newspaper ads and 60 billboards so far constitute a sizable contribution—and a substantial financial windfall—for the state’s media.

Having advocates in the media world’s high places can’t hurt either. Mike Gullege is one of nine “influential Montanans” who make up the Montana Meth Project Advisory Council, which includes Attorney General Mike McGrath. Gullege is also publisher of the Billings Gazette and vice president of publishing for Lee Enterprises, which owns five newspapers in the state that have provided substantial coverage on the Montana Meth Project.

In the Sentencing Project’s report, King zeroed in on coverage of the Montana Meth Project as an example of poor media treatment of the challenges of and solutions to the meth issue. The fallacious and mysterious 30 percent drop in teen meth use attributed to the Montana Meth Project and reported by the Associated Press is a perfect example. Reporters at the Arizona Republic who first reported that number did not return several calls seeking a source for that figure, so it’s hard to know where it might have originated. One potential, though inadequate, explanation could be Siebel’s reported goal of cutting first-time teen meth use by one-third in the first year of the campaign.

So what’s the harm in presenting incomplete pictures of both the “meth epidemic” and the Montana Meth Project? Many will argue that it’s counterproductive and downright ungrateful to examine Siebel’s gift horse with a dentist’s gaze. Meth use in general, particularly among adults and reflected by prison inmate usage reports, is a clear problem in Montana with severe impacts on the law enforcement and social services fronts, and any effort that contributes to ending the problem is worthwhile, some say. If even one teen watches Siebel’s ads and turns down a hit of meth, the Montana Meth Project is a success, the logic goes.

Part of the problem with that reasoning lies in the fact that Montana officials, not to mention those in other states, are increasingly seeking public funding to sustain and expand the Project.

In mid-July, Sen. Max Baucus told Missoula’s KPAX news he was fighting for a $4 million allocation to the Montana Meth Project as part of the 2007 federal budget. Representatives from Baucus’ office did not return repeated calls inquiring about progress on those efforts. Sen. Conrad Burns has said he’d like to see the Montana Meth Project become a national template, and has been working to secure federal grants with which other states could launch their own campaigns.

In the budget-crunching era, public dollars dedicated to one cause inevitably means fewer dollars directed to other efforts, whether they’re antidrug campaigns following a different model or other aspects of the meth issue, like treatment, that sorely need more funding. So the prospect of publicly funding the Montana Meth Project’s approach, which goes against the grain of decades of drug research into antidrug message efficacy, doesn’t appear to be justified. Montana’s Linkenbach says there’s growing recognition nationwide that throwing massive resources at a single drug, particularly in the form of a scare campaign, doesn’t make sense, since there will always be another popular drug waiting to take its place as long as the underlying causes of drug use are left unaddressed.

But there’s also the matter of politicians, media and the campaign itself latching onto the Meth Project’s recent efforts as a model solution when the data isn’t there to back that up.

Richard Rawson, associate director of the UCLA Integrated Substance Abuse Program in Los Angeles, says he had two conversations with Montana Meth Project officials while they were developing their first round of ads. He says he cautioned them “about making sure what they presented was accurate and that it didn’t have an artificial, horrific flavor to it that would discredit it.”

Rawson won’t judge whether the Montana Meth Project followed his suggestion, but he says the most important thing for the project and others in the state at this point is to fully and honestly evaluate all the findings and data of the project and tweak its efforts accordingly.

“If it really wants to be a program that develops credibility and not just a marketing campaign, you need to have a discussion of all the findings and not just the ones that speak to your success,” Rawson says.

As far as he’s concerned, “the jury is still out” on how the project’s approach works and what its survey data mean: “I’m not sure it is wise for anyone to be claiming any victories or defeats at this point; it’s just too early,” he says.

Peg Shea, executive director of the Montana Meth Project, is a well-known and respected figure in Montana’s drug prevention community. The former director of Western Montana Addiction Services with nearly 30 years of experience in the field presents thoughtful ideas about the Montana Meth Project and its potential.

“I think it’s an experiment that we need to try and we need to measure and we need to watch and we need to get out of our comfort zone,” says Shea, who also says that making the leap from longstanding public prevention efforts to a private-sector experiment took no small amount of guts.

The teens in the focus groups who were consulted during development of the ads, as well as the thousands of kids she’s talked with since the campaign’s launch, have convinced her that the ads’ in-your-face style is getting through.

“I think in today’s world we’ve really got to shake kids up in a different way,” she says.

About concerns of losing credibility with teens by showing such extreme portraits of meth abuse, Shea says 30-second ads call for a dramatic treatment and simply can’t capture all the complexities of the issue. What they can do, she says, is show and remind teens again and again that meth ruins lives and that their decision to try meth could be the watershed decision that ruins theirs. Other community efforts, like websites and the Paint the State Contest, are raising awareness in ways that the ads themselves may not, she says.

As far as the project’s survey data, results showing that teens who reported having two or more discussions about meth with their parents increased from 34 percent to 49 percent and that parents who said their discussions were prompted by a TV commercial increased from 30 percent to 48 percent show the Montana Meth Project is impacting lives, Shea says. So too do survey results showing increased perception of specific risks like tooth decay, brain damage, insomnia and stealing that can accompany meth use.

As far as the inconclusive or downright negative survey data and why the project didn’t include it in its report summary or press conference, Shea says merely that, “In a press conference you only have so much time.” She maintains that the drop in teens who saw “great” or “moderate” risk in meth use isn’t significant because “when you do a survey online, you’re not necessarily surveying the same people,” though it would necessarily follow that the same logic would also invalidate the data the project has been highlighting nationally.

She says she agrees with Rawson’s assessment that all data is a valuable part of informing the project’s evolution and says the Montana Meth Project is taking an honest look at many of the issues those numbers raise. Already, she says, some of the survey findings are helping to tweak the third round of ads, now in production, that will launch this fall. She knows that usage among teens has been trending downward for years, though she still says the number should be cut in half.

Shea presents an image of the Montana Meth Project and thoughts on what it’s accomplished so far that are reassuringly down to earth. She says she welcomes criticisms of the project because at least that prompts discussions about the meth issue and how to tackle it.

“We’re out there; we’re going to take shots, and that’s okay actually. It comes with the territory. We’re trying something new,” Shea says.

Shea’s reflective comments, though, don’t reflect the victorious self-image that the Montana Meth Project has set forth for consumption by Montana politicians and media. To the contrary, public officials’ comments and news stories circulating through the state generally speak to an escalating teen meth problem that’s being beaten back by a revolutionary campaign, both of which are tenuous claims.

In a June guest column in the Arizona Republic, Siebel, who was not available for an interview with the Independent, wrote, “Large-scale meth prevention is beginning to work in Montana. We are putting a dent in this enormous problem.”

It’s painfully tempting for politicians, and remarkably easy for media, to latch onto the Montana Meth Project as the state’s saving grace. But it’s an utterly different story when that easy answer evolves into eager exportation of the ad blitz to other states, and when taxpayers face the possibility that they, not the billionaire with the big idea, may be called upon to begin bankrolling the effort.

Faced with those prospects, it’s increasingly important to look long and hard at the stories that haven’t been told about the Montana Meth Project: that teen meth use is a serious but not prevalent issue; that the Meth Project’s fear-based approach recalls other ineffective and discredited antidrug campaigns; and that the data gathered so far fails to demonstrate results. If Montanans are to pour their money into the Montana Meth Project, they should insist their dollars fund effective, positive efforts. Despite the hype, the Montana Meth Project hasn’t shown itself to be that effort. Not even once.

jmcquillan@missoulanews.com

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