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The health crisis associated with methamphetamine use is devastating, growing, and tragic. To deal with it, public health officials continue to seek creative, alternative methods, especially in the states and regions that are hardest hit by the crisis. For example, in South Dakota, the number of people seeking help for their meth addictions increased by 200 percent in a recent four-year span.

Determined to confront the crisis, South Dakota’s governor and legislature authorized a public service announcement campaign that depicted various images associated with the state—a farmer, high school football players, an outline of its borders—together with the tagline “Meth. We’re on it.”

The phrase evoked multiple meanings, in addition to substantial controversy. In some readings, it implies that people in the state use the drug, but in others, it seems to suggest that the state is aware of and addressing the issues associated with meth use. According to the governor, those multifaceted meanings were purposeful. She wanted to bring attention to the vast reach of the crisis and force people to recognize that virtually everyone is being affected by meth use. But she also wanted to assure constituents that the state government was working on ways to help protect the population and resolve the crisis.

External observers express skepticism about the plan though. Some complained that the ironic and humorous tone of the advertising campaign was inappropriate for discussing methamphetamine addition, which claims people’s health, livelihoods, and lives and remains incredibly difficult to overcome. Others noted that by seeking multiple meanings, the phrase prevented any of them from being clearly communicated. Furthermore, some South Dakota residents found it offensive that the government itself would be willing to associate their state with a devastating drug.

The discussions suggest that, at the very least, the campaign got people talking, and that may be sufficient for it to be considered a success. Sadly, meth addictions are remarkably easy to develop but terribly challenging to treat. There is no medical option, so medical practitioners and families of addicts must rely on behavioral therapies, which take years to complete and have relatively poor success rates. Along with the public relations campaign, the state has introduced new educational initiatives for middle school students, expanded treatment services, and a research grant to track the locations that exhibit the highest rates of usage. That is, South Dakota is trying everything it can to deal with the problem of drug abuse. But are some of its efforts more harmful than helpful?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is a public service campaign that sparks a lot of controversy successful? What metrics might define success in this case?
  2. How did you react the first time you saw this campaign slogan?

Source: Mihir Zaveri, “‘Meth. We’re On It’: South Dakota’s Anti-Meth Campaign Raises Eyebrows,” The New York Times, November 18, 2019; Ben Kesslen, “South Dakota’s ‘Meth. We’re On It’ Campaign Is Funny, But State Officials Say the Meth Problem Is Deadly Serious,” NBCNews.com, November 20, 2019