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Healey urges US attorney to pull anti-opioid ads

By Felice J. Freyer Globe Staff 

Attorney General Maura Healey has urged the US attorney’s office and the MBTA to remove a controversial ad campaign intended to discourage opioid use.

Calling the ads “stigmatizing, ineffective, and counterproductive,” Healey said in a letter to both agencies that the campaign may actually “negate” some of the progress the state has made against opioid abuse.

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But in a statement to the Globe on Wednesday, Acting US Attorney William D. Weinreb stood his ground, saying the ads deliver an important message, in an attention-grabbing way, intended to change “the public’s view of pain pills.”

The campaign, titled #ReduceTheRisk, features images warning of the dangers of opioids, including a drawing of tombstones of overdose victims and a photo of newborn described as in withdrawal from opioids taken by the mother. The ads are running on buses and trains around the state, with plans to deploy them on social media as well.

When it was unveiled late last month, the campaign spurred immediate concerns by addiction specialists, who said the ads rely on long-discredited “scare tactics” and might discourage people from seeking treatment.

Asked for comment on Healey’s letter, the MBTA said in a statement that the transit agency “is pleased to work with stakeholders on raising awareness around this deadly epidemic.”

According to the attorney general’s office, the Southeastern Regional Transit Authority decided not to run the ads after receiving Healey’s letter.

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The letter, dated Dec. 5 and also addressed to Luis Manuel Ramírez, the T’s general manager and CEO, said that physicians, public health officials, and others with expertise in addiction found the ads troubling.

“They specifically found the image of a newborn to be medically inaccurate and one that could result in parents, including pregnant mothers, avoiding important treatment to improve health outcomes for newborn children,” she wrote.

But Weinreb said the ads are not intended for people who are already addicted.

“The ResistTheRisk campaign is designed to grab the attention of teens and young people and deliver an important message: Don’t use pain medication that is not prescribed for you. Don’t buy it on the streets; don’t take it at parties; don’t sell it or share it with friends. It is illegal and potentially deadly,” Weinreb said in his statement.


Felice J Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com.