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New anti-drug messages: bleak and to the point

The latest messages feature former heroin users talking about their scarred bodies, their regrets, their inability to get their old life back because of heroin.

These new messages are a far cry from the days when the Partnership for a Drug-Free America produced the frying pan-and-egg commercials with the line, "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs."

The new commercials are much more stark. "We think these messages will get through to the 16- to 24-year-olds who suddenly seem to think heroin is chic," said Don Byer, senior vice president of the New York-based non-profit group.

Byer was in Tampa last week, showing old and new Partnership commercials and thanking media and advertising folks for supporting the program by airing the commercials, billboards and advertisements for free.

Over the past 10 years, drug use has declined 45 percent, Byer said. He credits the company's ads encouraging adults not to use, teens not to start and parents to talk to kids.

But the latest craze, heroin, is a worrisome, growing issue. It's not the same drug it was in the 1960s, when it sold on the streets as 4 percent and 5 percent pure heroin. These days it's up to 60 percent and 70 percent pure and comes with brand names like Dead on Arrival and Redrum ("murder" spelled backward).

It has become chic among models, who use it to keep their weight down, because food is not a concern when you're wasted on heroin. And despite the July death of Jonathan Melvoin, a keyboardist for the popular group Smashing Pumpkins, the drug continues to gain allure among youngsters. This scares the Partnership.

That's why the ads that will air later this month _ produced for free by agencies around the country _ are straight, depressing and to the point. They feature ex-users whose bodies are scarred with needle marks and whose stories are far from glamorous.

Byer's job now is to get communities to air the messages and to get parents to talk to their children, which he said should start as young as 6. "Part of the perceptual problem for parents is that for many of them, drugs was a college issue," Byer said. "Now it's a growing problem for sixth-graders."

To get parents talking, the Partnership runs ads, relying on folks like Wayne Mock, president of billboard company Eller Media, to air the messages for free.

Most media companies, from newspapers to television, run some public service announcements for free. The challenge is to convince them your project is the most worthy.

"There are lots of reasons why media will run public service announcements," said Michelle Machado, former public service chairwoman for Ad2 Tampa Bay, a group of young ad professionals. "It can depend on if the people who are popping in the tapes like the way it looks, then they'll run it. Or maybe someone at the station likes the message. Or maybe you've just caught the people at the right time."