The White House is starting an anti-opioid advertising campaign targeting young people Thursday, one of its most concrete steps to address opioids since the Trump administration declared the epidemic a public health emergency in October.
Actors in the new public education campaign reenact the actual stories of young adults — with only their last names missing — when they were in the throes of opioid addiction. It was created by the Truth Initiative, which helped bring down cigarette smoking among young people over the last 20 years with its "truth campaign" ads.
The new opioid ads "bring into sharp relief two major facts: How quickly some people can become hooked and addicted and the lengths to which they will go," Kellyanne Conway, senior counselor to the president, said.
The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) also worked with the Ad Council, which developed the well known "Friends Don't Let Friends Drive Drunk" and "Vince and Larry" seat belt ads
"Kyle I. from Dallas" shares that he tried Oxycontin at a party a couple of times and thought he had it under control. Then he smashes his hand with a hammer to break it, while "Chris G. from Atlanta" shuts his arm in a door to break it. Both did it so they could get more prescription opioids. "Amy P. from Columbus" crashed her car into a dumpster to get more of the Vicodin she got hooked on after a knee surgery.
For Surgeon General Jerome Adams, an anesthesiologist, the "Truth about Opioids" ads hit home especially hard as his younger brother, Phillip, became addicted to opioids after trying a pill at a party when he was in his early 20s. His brother, now in his late 30s, is now incarcerated in a Maryland state prison, Adams says.
More from USAToday:
'Thank you for your service:' Surgeon General's uniformed corps battles opioid epidemic
401(k) investors: 5 reasons small stocks add up to big gains
Trump tweet on jobs report may have breached a 1985 federal directive
"It can to happen to anyone and you can do things you never imagined yourself capable of," Adams told USA TODAY.
In April, Adams issued the first surgeon general's advisory in 13 years, when he urged family and friends of those at risk of overdose to carry the opioid antidote naloxone. When he called the epidemic a public health emergency, Trump said the administration would be doing an advertising campaign on the issue. The Ad Council, Truth Initiative and White House decided it would be more effective to work together.
The ads emphasize that "opioid dependence can happen after just five days," and asks young people to "share the truth and spread the truth."
The concept is based on Truth Initiative research that found a big gap in young people's knowledge about what drugs are opioids and the risks they carry. And it's clearly having an adverse effect on behavior: More than 70% of overdose deaths among those 15 to 24 involved an opioid in 2015, the Department of Health and Human Services says.
Adams has a sense of deja vu over the campaign for another reason: "As a scientist, I've lived through some of the failed campaigns of the past," he says, without naming campaigns.
Many public health experts point to the Reagan administration's "Just Say No" campaign as being the best-known failure. To avoid that kind of mistake, creators of the campaign tested more than 150 messages on focus groups in the age target range to determine the "messages that resonate," says Adams.
The Ad Council attracted media and technology partners for the new campaign, including TV networks, Facebook, Google and You Tube. Media time was donated on these and other outlets including Vice that are popular with young people. The bold messaging should be too.
"We're not sugarcoating anything," says Truth Initiative CEO Robin Koval.
Adams urged parents to discuss the ads with their teens and 20-somethings and to dispose of unwanted pills by checking opioids.gov for safe disposal locations.
John Walters, who worked on drug policy in the Reagan White House and both Bush administrations, says a new public education campaign is important, but the "magnitude of the threat" is so large that the institutions that failed to prevent it can't possibly solve it. Besides, he notes, there's been a lot of unintended education already.
"News reports every day show (young people) taking these drugs and dying so I don't know what could be more powerful than that," says Walters, who headed ONDCP in the George W. Bush administration.