President Trump’s plan to use a blizzard of advertising to help stem the opioid crisis faces a serious funding challenge.
Similar initiatives have been backed by hundreds of millions in federal funding, but it's not clear if — or how soon — the money for Trump’s initiative could come.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who helmed the president’s opioid commission, says the onus is on Congress to provide an influx of funding to curb the crisis of prescription painkiller and heroin overdose deaths plaguing the country.
But it often takes time to get additional funding through Congress. Though the opioid epidemic has been a bright spot of bipartisanship in the past, it’s far from certain an influx in federal funds could come quickly.
Advocates say it’s likely millions of dollars would need to be behind a national media blitz, which has emerged as one of many key components to combatting the crisis.
“One of the things our administration will be doing is a massive advertising campaign to get people, especially children, not to want to take drugs in the first place,” Trump said, “because they will see the devastation and the ruination it causes to people and people's lives.”
The White House commission to address the opioid epidemic included an aggressive multimedia campaign as one of 56 recommendations in a 141-page final report released Wednesday.
“One of the things that we recommend to the president — in fact our first recommendation in this final report — is an extensive national media campaign paid for by the federal government with private sector partners,” Christie said at Wednesday’s opioid commission meeting.
The campaign should address “two major issues: One, the issue of education so that people don't start in the first place, but secondly — and just as importantly — is the issue of stigma,” Christie continued.
Advertising campaigns aren’t cheap.
Congress funneled nearly $200 million toward the National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign in its first year. Advertisements consisted of messages such as “soccer: my anti-drug” for part of the campaign, and Congress appropriated more than $1.2 billion total from 1998 to 2004 for the effort, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.
The first six years of the campaign weren’t proven to turn youth away from drugs, and “it may even have had an unintended and undesirable effect on drug cognitions and use,” according to a study from the National Institutes of Health.
Similarly, experts and advocates say the “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign, a phrase former first lady Nancy Reagan coined, wasn’t effective.
Advocates stress a campaign won’t solve the problem unless it is part of a more comprehensive approach that includes bolstering treatment, changing opioid prescribing patterns and more.
A campaign must be based on evaluations of what’s worked in the past, and also must frequently test the advertisement’s message with the audience it’s targeting, they say.
“We’ve learned a lot about how to communicate about these issues in the past three decades or so. There’s a lot of really good science on this right now,” said Marcia Lee Taylor, the chief policy officer at the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.
Some advocates had concerns about Trump’s rhetoric, saying it sounded reminiscent to the Just Say No campaign.
“The fact is, if we can teach young people — and people, generally — not to start, it's really, really easy not to take them,” Trump said during his speech declaring the opioid crisis a national public health emergency. “And I think that's going to end up being our most important thing.”
But the commission’s recommendations alleviated some of those fears, they said, as long as they influence what a multimedia campaign would look like.
“When I read through [the report], I was like 'this is much more likely,” said Tom Hill, vice president of addiction and recovery at the National Council for Behavioral Health.
“It really takes into consideration what the science is, what works and doesn't work, use of social media for adolescents,” Hill said. “As a campaign, it seems much more thought out and intentional.”
A national education campaign for opioids could be modeled after a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) effort to prevent youth from using tobacco, the White House opioid commission wrote in its report, adding that evaluations showed the campaign had a positive impact.
From January 2013 to March 2016, the campaign’s price tag was $247 million. Across the country, advertisements can be found on social media and on billboards, heard on the radio, seen on television and more. The dollars for the initiative came from user fees that Congress mandated on the tobacco industry, according to the FDA.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently created a campaign on the risks of taking prescription painkillers, which launched in late September with ads running for 14 weeks in four states. The cost of the campaign so far, including creating and evaluating it, amounted to $4.2 million, according to a CDC spokesperson.
This could serve as the framework for a nationwide campaign, though creating and ramping up a campaign will be costly.
“Let's say $1 an American,” said Michael Fraser, the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials’ executive director. “That would be [over $300] million dollars. Is that what we're trying to do? These numbers can get big real fast when you think about the scale of what a national campaign would look like, but I think it's important enough to really consider those.”
Former Rep. Patrick Kennedy (D-R.I.), a member of the president’s opioid commission, had specific ideas: “In coordination with the Federal Government and the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids, tech giants such as Google, Amazon, Facebook, and others should contribute $500 million in pro-bono advertising across multiple platforms,” he wrote in his own recommendations to the commission.
In comparison, a biomedical innovation bill Congress passed last year provided $1 billion over two years to fight the opioid epidemic.
The White House hasn’t released any specifics on what a campaign could look like, how much it could cost or how much it would like Congress to appropriate to combat the epidemic in general.
“By declaring a nationwide public health emergency, the President has prioritized the opioid crisis. The President’s policy advisors are diligently reviewing the Commission’s recommendations from its final report, and will continue to work with the entire Administration on this important issue,” Raj Shah, the White House principal deputy press secretary, said in an emailed statement.
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats recently introduced a bill to appropriate $45 billion over 10 years to fighting the epidemic. Congressional Republicans haven’t introduced a bill or intimated how much they would be willing to give. Some, though, have acknowledged more money is probably needed.
Rep. Tom ColeThomas (Tom) Jeffrey ColeGOP warns McConnell won't blink on debt cliff New spotlight on secretaries of state as electoral battlegrounds Here's what Congress is reading at the beach this summer MORE (R-Okla.), who chairs the House health appropriations subcommittee, said he’d be open to money for an advertising campaign as part of a larger opioid funding package. When asked if it could happen this year, Cole said “we might,” adding “it’s too early to tell.”