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Old tactics, new look: Kellyanne Conway defends Trump's new anti-opioid ads


WASHINGTON (Circa) -- If you're old enough, you might remember the visceral anti-drug ad campaigns of the 1980s. The Trump administration has recently released a campaign featuring their own versions of these ads in an effort to combat the ongoing opioid crisis.

But instead of rehashing the hyperbolic examples of yesteryear, like the infamous "this is your brain on drugs" ad featuring a fried egg, the new campaign recreates real stories of opioid addicts engaging in drastic examples of self-harm to get their fix. This was done on purpose, according to White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, who spearheaded the new campaign as President Trump's "opioid czar."

"The ads... are raw and real because they're authentic. These are true stories, no need to embellish or fictionalize, or come up with concepts," Conway told me in an interview on Friday.

In one of the four ads, a young man named Kyle explains that he tried "oxy," slang for the painkiller oxycodone HCI, at some parties.

"I thought I had it under control," says the voice over, as Kyle goes into his garage.

"I didn't know it would be this addictive," he says, reaching for a hammer in a tool box. "I didn't know how far I'd go to get more."

After a few deep breathes, Kyle swings the hammer down on his own left hand, crushing the bones and causing him to scream in agony. The video then cuts to x-rays depicting the shattered hand, and warns that opioid addiction can occur in as little as five days.

The other three ads portray similar stories, including a woman intentionally slamming her car into a garbage container and a man who breaks his own back. To say they are more visceral than their predecessors might be an understatement, but Conway believes sharing these true stories will help bring the message home. The ads are meant to convey two main points: first, is how quickly people can become addicted to legally prescribed drugs. The second is to show the "extreme lengths" some people will go to feed their addiction.

"It truly is the crisis next door because no state has been spared and no demographic group has been untouched, and the numbers have worsened over the last several years," said Conway. So we are hoping through ... many different series of ads, this being the very first one, that we can increase awareness and inspire action and literally, and truly, save lives."

There is little doubt that the opioid crisis has wreaked havoc on the country. Opioid-related deaths have quadrupled since 1999, and the drugs were responsible for two-thirds of the 64,000 people who died from drug overdoses in 2016. Legal, prescription opioids were a driving factor during the start of the crisis. 215 million opioid prescriptions were filled in 2016, with 19 percent of the entire U.S. population having taken them. But while over-prescription continues to be a problem, they have gone down since their peak in 2012 thanks to various policy efforts. Addicts are now turning to illicit heroine and extremely deadly fentanyl to feed their habit.

The ad campaign doesn't touch on illicit heroine or fentanyl, but Conway noted that future ads may touch on that subject. But it's unclear if the scare tactics will work, as its unclear the old campaigns were all that effective.

"The videos kind of take really extreme cases," Sefanie Jones, director of audience development for the Drug Policy Alliance told my colleague, Stephen Loiaconi. "I would just like to see the ads a little bit more tied to the facts and the circumstances around the opioid epidemic itself."

A 2004 study by the University of Florida found that ads showing the scary, physical consequences of drugs tend to be less effective compared to those that depict people engaging in activities that they say they couldn't do while taking drugs. Other studies, as Loiaconi wrote, have found that some ads had the opposite effect and made them curious about drug use.

Conway defended the efforts of the Ad Council, the organization behind the old and current anti-drug ad campaigns, claiming it has an important reach. She noted that various partners, such as Facebook, Google and NBC Universal, had donated $30 million dollars worth of air time to show the new ads. Trump's new "opioid czar" is also aware of the deadly role fentanyl has played in exacerbating the problem. She believes there is an "underload" of information on the deadly substance, noting that it is being laced into drugs that look like common opioids, despite the fact it is 50 times more potent than heroin.

The new ad campaign is part of a multi-pronged approach the Trump administration is taking to combat what is being considered one of the worst drug epidemics in the U.S. history. Some of those other measures, like the president's suggestion that some drug traffickers should get the death penalty, have created some controversy. Conway defended Trump's suggestion, noting that the Department of Justice has issued guidance to prosecutors noting that the death penalty for some traffickers may be appropriate. Note: she also said that guidance came out after the president made that announcement March.

"The president is not talking about low-level possession," explained Conway, pointing to Trump's recent pardon of Alice Marie Johnson, who spent more than twenty years in jail for drug crimes. "What this president is saying is put the death penalty on high-level traffickers because they are responsible."

Trump has also suggested mandatory minimum sentencing, which, like the notable drug campaigns, was also popular in the 1980s, though there is some debate regarding its efficacy and whether it is a fair practice.

Time will tell if the new ad campaign, and Trump's strategy works out.

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