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US attorney releases new antiopioid TV and radio ads

US Attorney Andrew Lelling
US Attorney Andrew Lelling(Pat Greenhouse/Globe Staff)

US Attorney Andrew E. Lelling has released a series of television and radio public service announcements intended to raise awareness about the dangers of opioids.

The ads come more than a year after Lelling’s predecessor drew fire from addiction specialists for antiopioid bus advertisements that employed scare tactics and misrepresented the treatment of babies born dependent on opioids.

But Lelling’s campaign, still bearing the title #ResisttheRisk, is sparking less fierce criticism. While not above reproach, the new ads are “better” than the ones put out by former Acting US Attorney William D. Weinreb in November 2017, said Dr. Richard Saitz, a Boston University addiction specialist. Saitz had called the 2017 campaign a classic example of “how not to do it.”

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Developed with “insight and feedback from formal and informal focus group participants,” the new ads aim to provide basic information about opioids, including the dangers and the laws associated with distribution, according to a press release from Lelling’s office.

“Our mission at the Justice Department is not just to prosecute crime but to prevent it,” Lelling said in a statement. His office intends to disseminate the ads to traditional and digital media platforms, including cinemas, television and radio stations, online music streaming sites, Google advertising, and social media.

Lelling’s ads — four 30-second television spots and six 15- or 30-second audio announcements — teach about the dangers of counterfeit pills, urge proper storage and disposal of medications, and discourage using pain pills to manage stress.

They also describe the penalties for fentanyl dealing, alert people that sharing their medications is illegal, and inform them that it’s unlawful for treatment or housing programs to turn away people for taking medication to treat opioid use disorder.

One of the TV ads, titled “Learn From My Mistakes,” provides a narrative about experimenting with pills leading to heroin addiction. “Addiction destroyed my family. Your choices matter,” the narrator says.

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Asked to assess the ads, Saitz said in an e-mail that some provide reasonable messages, but others “seem designed to evoke fear, which is not so effective.”

Additionally, he said, the ads put the burden on the individual to “resist” and to make good choices, when in reality addiction often emerges in the context of social, psychological, and economic forces outside a person’s control.

Keith Humphreys, a Stanford University psychiatry professor who advised former presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama on drug policy, reviewed Lelling’s ads and said that those providing life-saving information, such as facts about counterfeit pills, were valuable. But, he said, “Overall they were in kind of that old scare mode and stigmatizing mode that I don’t think is going to be helpful.”

Scare tactics can be counterproductive, he said. “The kind of kid who’s a rule follower, they don’t need that ad. That’s not who you’re trying to reach,” he said. But rebellious youngsters the ad targets are unlikely to be deterred by a story about the dangers of drug use. They might, instead, be intrigued and find it glamorous, Humphreys said.

Told of these critiques, Lelling said in a statement that he is investing resources in public education, “so people make better, more informed choices — an approach that has worked, time and again, over the last 30 years, from drunk driving to HIV to the dangers of cigarette smoking.” Meanwhile, the US attorney’s website still displays the controversial ads from 2017, which were likened to the failed “Just Say No” campaign of the 1980s. Weinreb said at the time that the ads were educational, directed at people who were not already addicted.

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Felice J. Freyer can be reached at felice.freyer@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @felicejfreyer