- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 22, 2001

'This is your brain," the woman says as she holds up an egg. "This is your brain on drugs," she adds as the egg is sizzling and frying in the pan.

Sure, those dramatic commercials about what happens to your brain on drugs have had an impact in that most TV viewers remember them.

A University of Kentucky study, however, shows that more subtle messages, such as that smoking marijuana might mean losing your girlfriend or failing a class, have had an effect on reducing drug use among some teens.

Anti-drug public service announcements (PSAs) were shown nearly 2,000 times during a four-month period in Lexington, Ky., and Knoxville, Tenn.

Researchers interviewed 100 randomly selected teens each month for 32 months (resulting in more than 3,000 interviews) and found that the PSAs contributed to a 26 percent drop among what researchers called "high-sensation seekers."

"High-sensation seekers are the teens who need a lot of excitement and engage in riskier activities," says Philip Palmgren, a communications professor and director of the study. "These kids are more likely to do drugs, to engage in sexual activity and to not wear a seat belt in a car."

About 50 percent of the teens interviewed fell into that category, Mr. Palmgren says.

In Knoxville, for instance, marijuana use had doubled (from 16 percent to 32 percent) just before the study, mainly because the test population was getting older, he says.

Eight months after the campaign, drug use within the last 30 days was down to 23 percent.

"This study shows that public health messages can have a significant impact if they are prepared and delivered appropriately," says Alan Leshner, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

Even though the public has been told for years about the negative long-term health impact of doing drugs, the message probably was not having that much of an impact among sensation-seekers, Mr. Palmgren says.

"There is lots of evidence that there is carcinogens in smoke," he says. "But the spots we aired don't say that."

Instead, the spots showed a girl losing her boyfriend, an athlete losing his coordination on the field, and examples of how marijuana affects one's judgment.

One spot that was based on a true story showed the impact "of making stupid decisions," Mr. Palmgren says. It showed a 17-year-old boy who admitted he used marijuana. He did some crazy things, he says, and one night he played Russian roulette.

"I lost," the boy says, as the camera pans down to his wheelchair. "I only smoked for a few minutes, but now I am on drugs for life."

Alan Levitt, director of the National Youth Anti-drug Campaign for the White House Office on Drug Control Policy, says he is pleased with the results of the study, which was published in the February issue of the American Journal of Public Health.

Ideally, the next step would be to see how these PSAs affect other teens.

"In the two test markets, the population is quite homogenous," Mr. Levitt says. "The national population is much more multicultural and urban."

Also, the frequency with which the ads played would be prohibitively expensive on a national level, he says.

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