New Opioid PSAs

Local professionals say new national campaign to curb use of opioid won’t work

By Deborah Jeanne Sergeant


Remember the public service announcements (PSAs) from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America in the 1980s depicting an egg in a hot pan to show “your brain on drugs” as it fried?

New PSAs released by Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) to address the opioid crisis, the Truth Initiative and the Ad Council, also discuss drug abuse in a dramatic fashion. Based on true stories, they show people purposefully hurting themselves to obtain more prescription pain medication. For example, it shows people smashing their hand with a hammer or driving a car into a dumpster.

Though the spots warn “opioid addiction can happen after just five days,” area experts contest the effectiveness of the new PSAs, which debuted on TV and social media in June.

“If we look at addiction for what it is, which is a disease, then putting out this type of PSA is also criminalizing and blaming those that do struggle with addition and maybe are doing the hard work of battling and addiction,” said Niccole R. Lorenzo, mental health counselor and owner of Branches of Growth, LLC in North Syracuse. “It creates more separation.”

While she does think that the new PSAs raise awareness, she believes that the message they contain doesn’t clearly connect the dots between how some people start taking opioids, as prescription medication after surgery, which eventually leads to medicating for feelings of depression and hopelessness.

She wants more attention on different options for pain management. Patients have the right to ask for other, non-addictive means to manage pain than opioid medication when they’re injured or about to undergo surgery.

“Medication can be a crutch to get you thru the pain, but it became an epidemic where people become addicted to it,” Lorenzo said.

Lorenzo volunteers at the Wounded Warrior program at the Veteran’s Administration. She has observed the effects of breathing exercises and mindfulness in pain control.

“It’s unfortunate to take so long for people to realize there are natural pain control methods and the innate wisdom of our bodies,” she said.

While the PSAs do grab attention, Dessa Bergen-Cico, Ph.D., a fellow of the American Academy of Health Care Providers in the addictive disorders, thinks that the ads are ineffective.

Bergen-Cico serves as associate professor department of public health and coordinator of the addiction studies program at Syracuse University. She authored “War and Drugs: The Role of Military Conflict in the Development of Substance Abuse.”

Bergen-Cico acknowledged that the ads are more informative than the frying pan ads, because they show the extent to which people will go to get drugs; however, she thinks that people who aren’t addicted to drugs may not readily identify with the extreme examples of self-harm depicted in the videos.

The ads also don’t show the signs and symptoms of addiction before they reach that desperate level.

“This is one of the perpetual challenges on substance abuse and addiction,” Bergen Cico said. “Prevention is a science and is complex. The spots create buzz but don’t express the complexity. It misses the mark in prevention as it focuses on those who are in the midst of dependency. It may raise awareness of intervention but won’t reach the person who has the addiction, because that person isn’t likely to see or hear that message.”

Understanding why and how people become addicted to opioids, such as a legitimate need for pain control after surgery, would help more people realize that anyone could become addicted as they become emotionally dependent after the physical need for pain control has subsided.

Like Lorenzo, Bergen-Cico thinks that opioids have been prescribed too carelessly since pain became a fifth vital sign in the 1990s. Helping the public understand the means of this addiction can help them reduce risk of dependency.

Bergen-Cico would like to see a PSA that’s written with the input of addiction experts who can help guide the content to prevention instead of chiding patients struggling with addiction with “PSAs that are quippy and memorable but ineffective,” she said.