Stigmatizing PSAs about drug use have advanced far beyond the imagery of an egg in a frying pan. In 2019, supposedly science-based agencies like the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) are making use of horror-movie visuals to spread misinformation about methamphetamine—a drug that is increasingly involved in fatalities.
On September 20, SAMHSA released a video (which you can watch above, or here) depicting a white man being brutalized by an animated monster—described as “what happens when you give meth a try.” Alongside the video, SAMHSA published a new webpage dedicated to explaining the “risks of meth.”
The video plays out three rounds of a wrestling match between a person who uses meth and the “meth monster.” After being struck in the face in the the first round, the man is pinned down while the “meth monster” extracts his teeth.
“Meth mouth” is a well-worn media trope. According to the American Dental Association, tooth decay associated with meth use is “likely caused by a combination of drug-induced psychological and physiological changes resulting in dry mouth and long periods of poor oral hygiene.” Inadequate hydration is a key factor—meaning that people who have never used meth can also get so-called “meth mouth,” just as most people who use meth do not.
Although researchers have still not concluded whether meth itself or lifestyle choices associated with chaotic use are the root cause for declines in oral health, harm reductionists recommend getting into a simple routine of drinking water and brushing teeth in order to mitigate these harms—something that SAMHSA’s wrestling match ignores. Instead, the agency implies that tooth loss is inevitable.
Rather than addressing further ways to reduce meth-related harms, SAMHSA’s third round of fighting concludes with an utterly unscientific statement: “Meth is stealing his soul.”
Such a claim stands in opposition to a public health approach to drugs, invoking instead the “morality” that has long plagued systems managing substance use. It dehumanizes people who use meth, and illustrates the disparate cultural disdain for meth use—which is popularly associated with white rural poverty—in contrast to use of nearly-identical amphetamines like Adderall, which is primarily associated with college students.
Harm reduction experts like Dr. Sarah Wakeman, an addiction medicine physician at Massachusetts General Hospital, have a simple recommendation for SAMHSA: “How about some fact based, non stigmatizing public health approaches instead of this….”?