Drug Education News

News and views from the Drug Education Forum

Mum doesn’t know best

Zoe Williams writing in The Guardian questions the way that public health campaigns are developed.  She says:

public health messages have to chime with experience. When they do they have an incredible impact, but when they don’t, they are not simply a bit less effective: they discredit the promulgating authority. An individual who hears from Primarolo that cannabis causes “serious and long-term health problems” but finds little empirical evidence for the same, stops listening to the government – not on those drugs alone, but altogether.

I think there’s some truth in this. We’ve certainly seen that over-emphasising the harms that drugs do can make some young people more likely to use drugs (see here and here for example) and less likely to take the messages seriously.

The problem is that these fear based messages do help confirm those who are least likely to take drugs in their decisions, which may explain why NICE’s guidance on public health messages for young people around tobacco should include ones that might elicit fear (though this isn’t without critics).

Ms Williams takes the argument further saying that the consequences of what she sees as a “mummy-knows-best approach” can also be seen in the increases in reported syphilis in the UK.

You may remember that the Kings Fund did a paper about the role of public health messages in changing behaviour (covered in depth here) which when looking at the source of health messages says:

Official sources or others endorsed by a government kite mark will not necessarily secure the public trust, connecting messages to a government source may in some cases have a negative effect.

But while individual messages may resonate and be remembered if we want to maximise the impact of spending on public health it needs to be allied to services and other interventions.  The Kings Fund paper concludes:

People need more than knowledge to be healthy, they need the skills to change; information campaigns must be coupled with other services and interventions if they are to bring about large changes in often complex and habitual lifestyle behaviours.


Filed under: Frank

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