Scare Tactics Don’t Stop People From Using Drugs

Information about how terrible drugs and alcohol are for your health doesn't seem to be an effective deterrent, a new study says.


For years, anti-drug and anti-smoking ads have relied on scaring people about the potential health risks of substance abuse. These are smoker’s lungs! This is your brain on drugs!

Unfortunately, scaring kids into sobriety with information about how terrible drugs and alcohol are for your health doesn’t seem to be an effective tactic, according to a study released this month by the International Journal of Public Health. In fact, drug users probably know more about the risks of drugs than people who decide not to use them.

The self-reported survey of 11,930 young Swiss men found that alcohol and cannabis users searched for health information on substances significantly more than people who abstained. They were also more likely to report that they had a “very good” knowledge of the risks associated with their preferred substance, though this might not be the most reliable metric, since it was self-reported.

“When you know a lot about the risks and everything about the substances, it doesn’t really bring you to consume less,” study co-author Petra Dermota told LiveScience. “You even consume more.” She suggests this could be a result of the negative health consequences, like liver damage from alcohol use, seeming too far away to influence users’ immediate choices, or because drug users feel the benefits outweigh the risks.

Future substance abuse campaigns should do more than just spout information. They should be interactive and encourage critical thinking, she says.

“Substance users appear to be more informed and knowledgeable about the risks of substance use than non-users,” the paper concludes. “Consequently, interventions that focus only on information provision may be of limited benefit for preventing substance use.”