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Why Does NY Campaign To Stop Smoking But Not Illicit Drug Use?

New York Post

August 11, 2023

The New York drug policy philosophy — what might be called making drug use safe, legal and everywhere — has hit some serious snags.

On Monday, US Attorney Damien Williams warned that he may shut down the city’s “safe injection sites,” where illegal hard drugs are used under medical supervision. 
That same day, a state Supreme Court judge halted the issuance of new pot dispensary licenses, after finding that giving first preference to ex-drug dealers violated state law aimed at helping veterans.

It’s the perfect time for a different approach: drug-use prevention.

And New York already has a model it can follow: Its successful tobacco-control efforts. 

Like pot, tobacco is legal but unhealthy.

But, in contrast to the cannabis rollout, which the state has hoped would lead to a sales-tax windfall, Albany does not urge New Yorkers to take up smoking to feed the state budget through the cigarette excise tax, scheduled to go up to $5.35 per pack Sept. 1.

Instead, the Department of Health’s Tobacco Control Program, funded by the court-ordered national tobacco settlement, lists clearly its highest priority: “Prevent initiation of tobacco and e-cigarette use by youth and young adults.”

It does this via paid media campaigns strategically placed on television, social media, radio, billboards and in print throughout the state.

There are heart-wrenching TV spots featuring dying smokers gasping for breath, urging those watching never to start.

They’re not only emotional; they’re effective, per a 2017 study published in the journal Public Health Management Practices, which found sustained media campaigns can contribute to lowering long-run smoking rates by up to 14%.

In sharp contrast, neither the Office of Cannabis Control Board nor its sister agency, the Office of Addiction Services and Support, which focuses on the hard-drug epidemic, show any serious interest in preventing drug use.

Those who doubt even pot’s potential harm should consult the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which describes five major categories of potential ill effects from marijuana use, including social anxiety, depression, suicide and schizophrenia.

This is no small matter in light of the latest Gallup survey finding 17% of Americans regularly smoke pot.

Yet the state OCM chooses not to draw attention to health matters; instead, on its website it guides users to where they can find legal dispensaries.

Its discussion of health effects, when you can locate it, is limited to “marijuana use disorder” — which cautions against smoking too much. 

There’s no discussion at all that cannabis is a potentially dangerous drug or that one might be better off avoiding it altogether.

There’s far more focus on the potential “social equity” of granting dispensary licensees to former illegal drug dealers — the priority just halted by the courts.

The Office of Addiction Services is similarly pursuing an acceptance, not prevention, approach to the deadly epidemic of hard-drug (fentanyl) use and overdose, which took the lives of more than 3,000 New Yorkers last year.

But the OAS takes the view that the wave of drug use can only be managed, not reversed.

Its website emphasizes “free harm reduction supplies” — nalaxone (to reverse overdose effects) and “test strips” to help users ensure their streets drugs are not impure or too strong.

This is the philosophy of the East Harlem and Washington Heights safe injection sites — opposed by law-abiding neighbors — that the US attorney may close.

Indeed, “harm reduction” is Priority No. 1 for programs funded by a $2.6 billion windfall from the national “opioid settlement.”

And the state wants to spend $27.7 million of a future settlement on methadone-type treatment for addicts and ensuring access to “harm reduction” sites, where addicts can shoot up under nurse supervision — but just $6.3 million on prevention, mainly counseling programs.

What’s missing here is any concerted, mass-media high-profile drug-use-prevention campaign akin to the effort of the Tobacco Control Program.

Even those prevention programs the OAS supports are worrisome; its education and community programs aim to “delay the initiation of substance use” and “prevent escalation of substance misuse.” 

Don’t start too young and shoot up carefully, in other words.

New York is home to the world’s most creative ad industry.

The efforts to combat terrorism spawned the smart, and useful, “if you see something, say something” slogan. 

The industry should be called upon to develop an effective message to deter drug use, not just to manage its effects or cheerlead legal availability.

Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No to Drugs” campaign may have been simplistic — but it had the virtue of being right.