BILLINGS — A new study concludes that a multi-million dollar advertising campaign to deter youths from trying methamphetamines has had no discernible impact on abuse rates.
Economics researcher D. Mark Anderson of the University of Washington said Tuesday that abuse of the drug already was on the decline before the high-profile Montana Meth Project was launched in 2005.
An estimated $13 million has been spent on that campaign, and the program has since been replicated in seven other states: Arizona, Idaho, Illinois, Wyoming, Colorado, Hawaii and Georgia.
With its use of billboards and other advertisements to link meth abuse with teen prostitution, crime and death, the project has been touted as an unqualified success by politicians and law enforcement officials.
But Anderson's study, in the September issue of the Journal of Health Economics, calls into question whether that advertising money is being well spent. He compared Montana meth usage trends between 1999 and 2009 with trends in neighboring states and the nation.
"When I control for the fact that meth has not only been decreasing in Montana over a long time period but also pretty much everywhere else, I find no affect from the project," he said.
Montana Meth Project director Bill Slaughter said Anderson's study failed to reflect that the rate of meth decline accelerated after the campaign was launched.
Between 1999 and 2005, the number of youths reporting they had used meth fell 39 percent, from 13.5 percent of youths in 1999 to 8.3 percent in 2005. Between 2005 and 2009, the drop was 63 percent, to 3.1 percent of youths, Slaughter said.
Interviews with youths showed they had seen and were reacting to the project's advertisements, he added.
"(Anderson) takes a couple of points of comparison and concludes the meth project has not had an impression," he said. "Our ads are in your face. We know what teens are thinking because we get them together to ask them."
Anderson said he used the same data referenced by Slaughter to reach his conclusions, and that the acceleration simply was not there from a statistical standpoint.
"If I had found the meth project had an effect, that's what would have been reported," he said. "I just wanted to know if this anti-drug campaign worked and I found that it didn't."
A similar conclusion was reached two years ago by an Australian researcher who studied Montana's program.
David Erceg-Hurn, a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology at the University of Western Australia, contended that the Meth Project's reports distorted the program's successes by emphasizing positive numbers.
He concluded that after six months of exposure to the ads, there was an increase in the percentage of teens who said using methamphetamine was not a risky behavior or who strongly approved of regular meth use.