A new anti-crystal meth campaign featuring the warped mugshots of alleged repeat users is scary, but is it effective at discouraging drug abuse? Not really, say researchers.
The "Horrors of Methamphetamines," launched by Rehabs.com, claims to show the physical self-destruction that the drug is capable of.
The faces of youthful, virile men and women booked on meth-related charges rapidly mutate as the same individuals are arrested again and again. They transform into haggard, gaunt and unkempt visages just a few years after the apparent downward spiral began.
Acne litters what was once unblemished skin, rosy cheeks hollow out and tangled clumps of hair replace neat 'dos. The online poster warns that these are telltale signs of decay unleashed by prolonged, illegal crystal meth use.
"I think it's definitely more effective when people can see the outcome of what abusing that substance might be, it becomes more concrete in a person's mind," said Dan Tynski, Rehabs.com's project manager. "We're going to be putting out lots of material that creates awareness about drug abuse."
Researchers however doubt the before-and-after PSA will curb meth use.
Dr. Dolores Cimini, a psychologist specializing in substance abuse counseling at the State University of New York at Albany, described the scare tactics as "health terrorism" which are not effective at altering behaviors.
"Adolescents are egocentric and they say it's not going to happen to me," Cimini said to HufPost. "Ads such as this when presented alone do not have research evidence behind them that they work to change the behavior of meth users."
The photos were acquired from Internet websites trading in mugshots. Rehabs.com workers searched databases looking for individuals busted at least twice for meth. The company didn't contact the repeat offenders to determine if the metamorphoses seen in the mugshot were caused by anything else, Tynski said.
The visual allegory warning of the drug's dangers may be disturbing, however, it's not an original message.
The Multnomah County Sheriff in Oregon appealed to the vanity of would-be drug users when it created its "Faces of Meth" program. Like Rehabs.com it used mugshots to create a gallery of alleged addicts.
Tynski admitted that self-interest was one of the primary forces that led the company to create an ad with lots of shock value. Rehabs.com is a startup looking to carve out a niche in the $4.5 billion industry of substance abuse treatment facilities. The website is a portal where visitors can get information about types of care and search for rehabs centers across the country.
"We want to raise awareness about Rehabs.com, to get the name out there," Tynski said to HuffPost. "I'd say the target audience is probably a social audience who would want to share it on Facebook or Twitter." By those measures, the campaign has been a success. Tysnki said since the ad debuted last week, the company's website has seen a surge in traffic.
Luckily, methamphetamine use has dropped among high school students. A Monitoring the Future study, which surveys students about drug, alcohol and smoking habits, found that in 2009, 1.2 percent of seniors said they'd used meth in the past year. That was down from a 4.7 percent who'd reported using it in 1999.
The number of people currently using the drug, meaning that they admitted to taking it within the previous month, has also slipped, according to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health. In 2010, 353,000 Americans or 0.1 percent of the population, had used meth in the last 30 days, compared to 731,000 or 0.3 percent of the population.