Hard News by Russell Brown


Too Good to Be True

If a private consultant in most fields of medicine or social study was to emerge and start firing out press releases declaring that the experts were wrong and he had the fix for decades-old problems, you'd normally expect him to be treated with caution by responsible news media. So why does Mike Sabin get so much indulgent press?

Sabin is a former policeman who left the force and founded MethCon, a specialist consultancy that relies on the proceeds of gambling addiction to carry out its work. Nonetheless, I think he's sincere.

Sabin's miracle cure for all drug problems rests in part on ubiquitous random drug testing in schools and workplaces. He doesn't seem bothered by any thoughts about what coercive testing would do to the school environment, and his claim that it would prevent future drug use is, to put it kindly, dubious.

To give Sabin credit, he emphasises drug abuse as a health, rather than a criminal issue. But the "gateway" theory is hard to stand up against what we know about young New Zealanders and cannabis: nearly three quarter of New Zealanders between the ages of 15 and 21 have used cannabis. It's not going too far to describe it as a rite of passage.

We do know that use of cannabis in early teenage years greatly increases the risk of subsequent problems. We also know that the vast majority of young New Zealanders who use marijuana have no problem with it and most simply stop using it. And yet it's this group that drug testing would catch. The joint at a weekend party is detectable for weeks afterwards -- the weekend P binge will be cleared in 48 hours.

Sabin touts the Montana Meth Project as a striking example of the success of the scare-style campaign he's taking around receptive New Zealand schools now (I'd wager he's using images from the campaign itself in his presentations); and as a "proven model". It's a popular point of view. But as this 2006 analysis points out:

What you won't learn from project officials, the mainstream media or politicians is that meth use by Montana teens, the specific target of the Montana Meth Project, has been on the decline for seven steady years. You won't hear that the project's own survey, conducted once before the ads ran and again six months into their run, found a statistically significant increase in the number of teens who said they saw no risk in trying meth once or twice. Nor will you learn of the survey's finding that large numbers of teens report that the project's ads exaggerate meth's risks, or that decades of drug prevention research has found similar scare tactics to be ineffective.

The whole thing, including the comments from the Republican state senator in Arizona who abandoned his own bill to bring the project to his own state after seeing the research, is worth reading.

The problem is that framing drug education solely in terms of the screaming, scab-infested far end of the spectrum critically undermines the credibility of the message. Any methamphetamine addict is, by definition, in trouble. To say that the vast majority don't actually end up scratching ghastly holes in their own skin is somewhat understating the case.

None of the data reported in the paper Sabin presented to a select committee yesterday are unknown to experts here. It's just that his "proven" facts simply aren't the whole story. Indeed, there is a large body of evidence that argue directly against his approach. On the issue of random drug testing in schools, Britain's Joseph Rowntree Foundation provides a useful summary of pros and cons and concludes that:

… until the evidence one way or another is available it would seem prudent for the government to advise caution rather than
encourage experimentation with a costly and potentially damaging new approach to drug prevention.

Then you have this survey, conducted late last year, which found that 80% of American doctors and 93% of those involved in treating adolescents "disagreed with the Office of National Drug Control Policy's recommendation that all adolescents be drug tested at school." (Among the problems: those tests generally don't screen for the fastest-growing category of abuse -- prescription drugs. The growth in prescription drug abuse in the US goes quite some way to matching the decline in illegal drug use.)

The weird thing is that Sabin doesn't even agree with himself on drug testing. Earlier this year, he told Industrial Safety News:

"The approach to use drug testing to enforce zero tolerance through better interception and policing has not worked in society, so is unlikely to work in a workplace," Mr Sabin says. “New Zealand now ranks third in the world for the use of methamphetamine ‘P’, after Thailand and Australia."

As appealing as it may sound to control drug use, random testing is also an affront to those 90 percent of workers not using drugs, Mr Sabin adds. "If you ask most of my clients, they will say their policy is ‘zero tolerance’, but what exactly does that mean?"

It means that Mr Sabin should be approached with caution. As ever, the pitch that seems too good to be true usually is.


And on a completely different tip, this week's Media7 looks at the wrangle over Sky Television's near-total dominance of major sports broadcasts, and TVNZ's proposal to a government review that Sky be structurally separated to curb that dominance. The panel is TVNZ's Peter Parussini, the Sunday Star Times' Tim Hunter and TV producer (of Eating Media Lunch, among others) Phil Smith.

You can see it on TVNZ ondemand, as Windows Media clips, via the podcast and on YouTube.

You really want to see Simon Pound's report on the suburban wrestling scene. It's choice.

Oh, and the Drench ad featuring Brains from Thunderbirds, which concludes the show, got trimmed at the editing stage yesterday and doesn't really make sense. You can see the full version here.

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