In the fight against drug abuse, scare tactics don’t work


Scare tactics can trigger the behaviours they are meant to prevent. [Courtesy]

Do you remember the massive public health campaigns designed to combat smoking? You may have seen the adverts, posters and may even have one that sticks in your mind.

Fear-arousing messages invariably fail with substance use. This is because those who are at high risk of using psychoactive substances usually know the dangers of the substances they are using. They do not want to be reminded of what they already know.

Since the 1960s, substance abuse prevention practitioners have relied heavily on scare tactics and fear-based messages as core elements of prevention programming. Focused on eliciting emotional responses, these messages have historically been moralistic in nature, exaggerating the harmful effects of substance use and often failing to include factual information about the dangers of use.

Even if a scary advert does evoke a strong emotional reaction, research shows people still do not modify their behaviour adequately. They rarely make the connection between the advert and their own personal circumstances.

They do not address perceptions of the benefits of substance use. Pressure to fit in, the desire to relax or to forget unpleasant emotions are all reasons why people might want to try alcohol and other drugs. When anti-substance use messages fail to engage these realities, people will tune them out.

In fact, scare tactics can trigger the behaviours they are meant to prevent. After the first exposure, the viewer may be startled and might end up in the wrong direction. The exaggerated effects may increase the likelihood of engaging in undesirable activities.

If the scary advert makes someone feel bad about themselves, judged or alienated, they are more likely to turn to drugs to forget unpleasant emotions. What works? Tell the truth, keep it candid and do not exaggerate.

Instead of scare tactics and doom, substance abuse prevention practitioners should use positive emotions to engage people to promote positive healthy lifestyles and behaviour. They should not make you feel threatened, depressed, or disgusted, because if they do, no one will want to think about the information contained in the advert.  

Messages, on the other hand, should bust myths and empower people to feel good about their healthy choices drawing attention to the positive instead of zeroing in on the negative. Public awareness campaigns about substance abuse should avoid the use of fear to control behaviour, stress the infrequency of substance use, bolster refusal skills and persuade the non-users that they are the majority of their peer group.

Prevention programmes should include a variety of interventions including screening, professional education among health professionals, children-parent programmes in schools, community and media events devised and administered through locally “owned” channels.

This underscores the importance of combining prevention interventions to amplify the prevention effect. The success of such interventions is evident throughout the community in terms of increased knowledge. It is fair to assume that changes stimulated are likely to manifest positive outcomes.

Successful prevention programmes should not scare, threaten or exaggerate the dangers of substance use.

 -The writer is communication officer at Nacada


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