Editorial: Scare tactics don’t work

A B.C. funeral-home chain’s plan to offer a presentation on fentanyl’s dangers to “schools, youth clubs, sports groups and church youth groups” is a reminder of how poorly we understand addiction and drug use.

Alternatives Funeral & Cremation Services crowdfunded to pay for the program, which it says includes bringing a hearse and casket to schools to highlight the risk of drug use in a “more visceral, emotional” way.

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The “Just Say No” approach, with dramatic warnings of the consequences of drug use, was championed by the DARE program presented since 1983 in schools across North America, including B.C.

That’s long enough to allow research into its effectiveness, which shows almost 45 years of failure. At best, long-term studies found no difference in drug use between students who participated in the program and those who didn’t. Some studies found DARE participants were more likely to smoke and consume alcohol.

Billions of dollars have been spent on decades of failed preventive programs. As a society, we know more about the risks of drug misuse than ever before — and it has made no difference.

Instead, we’ve embraced ignorance. The operators of a funeral business would not likely decide to launch public campaigns on avoiding prostate cancer or kidney disease. But when it comes to drugs, everyone seems to claim expertise.

B.C. chief coroner Lisa Lapointe responded to the funeral home’s campaign.

“Programs focused on scaring people from using drugs are not effective in saving lives,” she wrote. “Additionally, they tend to increase the stigma surrounding drug use and actually discourage people from seeking help — an obsolete approach that has led to the loss of countless lives.”

We are in the midst of a crisis. About 1,500 people will die as a result of drug overdoses in B.C. this year, more than five times the number killed in car crashes.

People know the risks, but feel compelled to use anyway for a host of reasons.

The research does suggest approaches that can work, from campaigns to encourage users to avoid the most dangerous practices to educational efforts to build people’s decision-making skills. The University of Victoria’s Canadian Institute for Substance Use Research, for example, has developed iMinds, an approach to building young people’s drug and gambling literacy as part of the school curriculum.

The funeral-home chain isn’t alone in clinging to a discredited, ineffective approach to drug use.

But with an average of four new deaths every day, it is surely time to end such foolishness.

There are a wide range of effective policies, from education to individual support to safe, prescribed drugs.

We know what works, and what doesn’t. We simply have to act.

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