Group aims to lower meth use among young adults with bold new campaign
By Alvin Park
The Hawai‘i Meth Project, a nonprofit organization aimed at curbing methamphetamine (or “ice”) abuse among teens, hopes to educate Hawai‘i’s youth about the dangers of the drug through a revamped website and new radio, print and TV ads.
Jennifer Phakoom, program manager at the Hawai‘i Meth Project, hopes that the new web-centered campaign will attract teens and young adults with their question of “What do you know about meth?”, which challenges youth to learn more about the drug through their new website.
“The whole website revolves around the 26 most frequently most asked questions about ice,” Phakoom said. “If you were to go to the homepage, you would see the 26 questions that scroll on the page. If you click on the questions, it goes deeper into them.”
The website, methproject.org, opens with the question “What do you know about meth?” before fading and displaying explicit questions like “what does meth do to my brain?” and “how can meth lead to unwanted sex?”
Once visitors click on the questions, a wealth of information is presented in the form of videos, testimonials, interactive “games,” photos and statistics.
The group hoped to maintain a raw approach by not shying away from graphic depictions. For example, on the website, visitors can learn about the effects meth has on the body by engaging in a “game” where one grabs a set of virtual tweezers and plucks off body parts — hair, teeth, bones — and drops them in a metal tin to gain more information about the drug.
The national Meth Project organization developed the website based on extensive research and focus groups. It took six years to create.
But besides giving visitors to the website information about the drug, Phakoom hopes that teens and young adults will be able to interact with it and share their own stories with others.
“There is also a section where they can upload their own content,” Phakoom said. “There is a ‘Speak Up’ section where they can submit art, photography and poetry — whatever medium floats their boat. They can upload it to the site so teens all over the country can see.”
The idea behind the website was to communicate with young adults via platforms that they were familiar with – the Internet and social media – and use that to educate them about meth abuse and the consequences of it.
“I want them to feel like it’s a forum for them,” Phakoom said.
Meth In Hawai‘i
Meth use in Hawai‘i has alarmed city officials and citizens for decades – with the state’s meth use at 410 percent higher than the national average in a 2010 study of more than 4.5 million samples.
Meth abuse costs Hawai‘i more than $500 million each year in costs related to law enforcement, lost productivity, treatment and social services, according to the Meth Project.
And despite the Hawai‘i Meth Project’s graphic print ads aimed at the youth — one featuring a young lady peeling at open sores on her face and another showing a severely thin girl with open cuts looking somber in front of a mirror – meth use among teens and young adults remains a pervasive problem in the state.
An increased number of young people in Hawai‘i have said they have been exposed to the drug — 19 percent of Hawai‘i teens reported that the drug would be easy to get, and roughly one in ten Hawai‘i teens (9 percent) reported that someone has offered or tried to get them to use the drug, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.
“I think ice is definitely common among Hawai‘i schools,” said Yubin Cho, a junior at Pearl City High School. “I’m sure a lot of people know how to get [the drug] or knows someone that knows someone.”
Cho said a lot of her peers have experimented with the drug, but she noticed that a vast majority of high school students stayed clear of the drug based off advertisements they’ve seen about meth – presumably by the Hawai‘i Meth Project.
“Those ads are pretty graphic so they stick in your mind,” said Sharon Kim, a senior at Kaiser High School. “Even though I know a few people who have done ice, I’m sure the ads have helped prevent others from even trying it.”
These kinds of reactions toward the Meth Project’s campaign are what the group hopes to achieve. As a program manager for the group, Phakoom travels to local middle and high schools four days a week, and gives multimedia presentations about the dangers of meth.
“We don’t sugarcoat anything,” Phakoom said. “We don’t hold anything back and we tell them the truth — this is what it’s going to do to your brain and your family. We tell them everything, from the statistics to the common ingredients found in meth. So they can really have an understanding of it.”
Phakoom also suggests a few reasons behind Hawai‘i’s staggering meth statistics in youth. These factors may include things such as teens feeling pressured, misunderstood, wanting to be cool or boredom. She also suggested a pattern she called “multi-generational meth use.”
This pattern occurs when meth has been in the family for a long time and goes down the generation line, said Phakoom.
“What I encounter a lot when I talk to kids is that their grandma or mom used it,” she said. “It’s in their family. It’s definitely different in Hawai‘i than other states.”
This was a pattern that seemed to resonate familiarly with Hawai‘i high school students.
“I think you are more likely to do ice if you’ve been exposed to it in your earlier years,” Kim said. “I think most of the people I know who [do ice] saw their aunty or uncle doing it years ago.”
A 2011 survey showed that the Hawai‘i Meth Project’s outreach efforts are having some degree of effect, especially among young people in the state.
Earlier this year, the group released findings from their 2011 Hawai‘i Meth Use & Attitudes Survey, which revealed that more of Hawai‘i’s young people are significantly more aware of the dangers of trying meth and increasingly disapprove of trying it even once.
The survey said 59 percent of Hawai‘i teens and 73 percent of Hawai‘i young adults now see significant risk in trying meth once or twice, up 15 points among teens from 44 percent in 2009 and up 16 points among young adults from 57 percent.
Young people in Hawai‘i are also more aware of the negative aspects of using the drug, according to the survey. An increased number of teens see “great risk” in 13 out of 14 specific negative consequences of the drug compared to last year including: turning into someone they don’t want to be (83 percent, up 10 points), and getting hooked on meth (82 percent, up 11 points.)
The survey also claimed that teens are increasingly disapproving of trying meth (87 percent, up 5 points), more teens have told their friends not to engage in the drug (70 percent, up 11 points), and teens are more likely to have discussed the subject of meth with their parents in the past year (53 percent, up 5 points.)
“The results of the study are overwhelmingly positive and clearly indicate the Hawai‘i Meth Project campaign is making tremendous strides in changing attitudes and behaviors toward meth,” said Dr. Kevin Kunz in a press release, a specialist in Addiction Medicine in Kailua-Kona and President of the American Board of Addiction Medicine.
However, views on the effectiveness of the Hawai‘i Meth Project and similar initiatives in other states are controversial. This topic was the focus of Associated Students of the University of Hawai‘i (ASUH) president, Anna Koethe, who decided to do her senior thesis on the discrepancy.
Koethe’s thesis was targeted at evaluating the effectiveness of the Hawai‘i Meth Project since there are conflicting views on the group’s influence.
“The Hawai‘i Meth Project, which stems from parent, Meth Project, claimed that it has been wildly successful in changing attitudes of teenagers about meth use,” she said. “They have conducted massive surveys amongst middle and high school students to produce this data. However, there are many critics to the Montana Meth Project, also part of the parent, Meth Project.”
The Montana Meth Project made similar claims as the Hawai‘i Meth Project. However, research scholars found that there were actually other factors behind the decreasing rates of meth use, and that the Meth Project was actually too late, according to Koethe.
Attitudes about meth use were increasingly negative and meth use was already decreasing before the Meth Project was implemented, according to her thesis. Stricter law enforcement and government intervention were also possible factors behind the decreasing statistics.
“When I read this, I was intrigued and wanted to see if the case was similar in Hawai‘i,” Koethe said, who is still working on the data analysis portion of her thesis.
Though the reasons behind the statistics are still subject of debate, the Hawai‘i Meth Project still intends to continue with their graphic and illustrative TV, radio and print ads, which they see as a necessity to catch the attention of today’s youth.
“I think that our biggest challenge is we have to get a teenager’s attention,” Phakoom said. “Think of all the sensory overload teens face on a daily basis. Our challenge is to cut through the noise, and that’s why our commercials are the way that they are.
“We are telling the teens the truth in a way that will catch their attention. We want to leave a lasting impression with them.”