Meth Project follow up visual

A new Montana Meth Project billboard stands on the side of I-90.

The Montana Meth Project is in its 11th year of saturating the state with graphic ads aimed at reducing teen meth use. Scenes of young girls trading sex for drugs, teenagers assaulting their parents for money and emaciated addicts picking at their skin have targeted Montana’s youth with the message “Not Even Once.”

While it appears the large-scale advertising campaign has succeeded in raising awareness around Montana’s unrelenting battle with methamphetamine, the project has also been criticized by studies that show it has been ineffective at reducing meth use and may actually cause viewers to see the drug as less risky.

Teen meth use has declined from 8 percent in 2005, when the campaign began, to 3 percent in 2009, where it remains today, according to Montana’s High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.

Due to its apparent success, the project was adopted by seven other states and named the third best philanthropy organization in the world by Barron’smagazine. Montana legislators deemed it so successful that in 2007, they appropriated $1 million to the previously privately funded campaign.

But a 2008 study published in Prevention Science, a peer-reviewed research journal, surveyed teenagers before and after exposure to the ads, and found a consensus among 50 percent of teenagers that the graphic ads exaggerate the drug’s risks, and caused a threefold increase in the percentage of teens who believe that using meth is not risky.

The study also pointed out that MMP’s apparent success in reducing meth use can be attributed to its 2005 launch, which coincided with the imposition of the Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act. The CMEA restricted the sale of over-the-counter drugs that can be used to manufacture meth, precipitating a 68 percent decrease in meth lab incidents in Montana, according to a 2006 report by the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The study recommended MMP’s campaign be put on hold pending “rigorous research.”

When asked about this study, MMP Executive Director Amy Rue said in an email that the report is over eight years old. Rue did not respond to other inquiries about the MMP.

Another 2010 study by D. Mark Anderson, assistant professor of economics at Montana State University, found little evidence that the MMP impacted meth use among high schoolers.

“The relationship between the Meth Project and meth use was generally small and statistically indistinguishable from zero,” the report concluded.

Montana’s teen meth use has also been declining since 1999, which suggests other factors were at play before the ad campaign began.

Despite questions regarding MMP’s success, it still garners support from addiction experts and health workers statewide, who say it sparked dialogue about an often neglected issue. Malcolm Horn, director of learning and clinical supervision at Rimrock Foundation, an addiction treatment center near Billings, said the MMP started an important conversation about the dangers of meth use.

“I think they’ve done a good job of getting the message out that it’s not something to do for fun,” Horn said. “It can turn deadly very quickly.”

Horn added that while scare tactics work on some teens, most rarely consider the long-term effects of drug use. Often, teens see no resemblance between the sore-covered addicts on MMP billboards and their friends or family members who use meth.

Horn said the Rimrock Foundation hasn’t seen any significant change in young meth patients since MMP’s ad campaign began. She added that people generally know meth is bad, and the focus needs to turn to treatment and drug education.

Kerry Herndon, addiction and Project Success counselor at Sentinel High School in Missoula, said meth is a growing problem among her students. Students who attend class while high or are known by their peers to use drugs are referred to Herndon’s office.

She said meth use has “definitely increased” at Sentinel High School in the past year.

Herndon said it’s difficult to gauge MMP’s impact on students. Some have told her the ads seem exaggerated, saying, “I know a lot of people that are using meth and they don’t look that way or act that way.”

Herndon attributes the increase in student meth use to easier access from friends and family, and said the perception among students that “everybody is trying it” makes meth more appealing. She added that drug education should begin in middle school, and should address brain development and healthy coping skills for students dealing with stress and anxiety.

“I don’t know that scare tactics are the best approach,” Herndon said. “And if you look at evidence-based prevention models, they say those are the least effective.”

However, a 2012 study published in the Journal of Marketing Research found that while fear is an ineffective tactic on its own, adding an element of disgust may dissuade people from using drugs. The study suggested that MMP’s graphic images with blood and rotting teeth may be effective, though it didn’t evaluate actual attitudes among young Montanans.

MMP uses a variety of media campaigns to spread its message, including a video contest called “Life or Meth.” This year’s winner, Laira Fonner, a psychiatric residential nurse at Pathways Treatment Center in Kalispell, knows the devastation of meth addiction well. In addition to treating meth-affected patients, her son was addicted to meth for 10 years.

“It was devastating,” Fonner said. “I was pretty certain I would have a dead son. I don’t think you can prepare yourself for that, but stupidly I was thinking I should probably prepare a funeral. I kept asking him, ‘What do you want your funeral to be like?’”

After nine months in the NEXUS Methamphetamine Treatment Center, Fonner said her son has been clean for more than two years.

The MMP’s message is helpful for kids who might impulsively consider trying meth, Fonner said. But for young people who are already at risk because of a mental illness or meth use in their family, the ads may not make a difference.

“They feel less optimistic about their future, so why not do a drug that makes you feel good for a few hours? The next outreach needs to be toward kids faced with those situations,” Fonner said.

The MMP is credited with encouraging open discussion and education about meth abuse. But it appears the ad campaign has had little lasting impact on teen meth use. Fonner said her son, who started his own chapter of Narcotics Anonymous, proposes a different approach.

“The Montana meth project has always been ‘Not Even Once,’ but what about the people that have been struggling with an addiction and can’t seem to get past it?” Fonner said. “And what my son says, is those people need a message that has a little bit of hope; that you’ve got this horrible affliction now, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of your life.”