March 20th to 26th is National Drug and Alcohol Facts Week (NDAFW). The National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) began promoting this week in 2010 to encourage the education of communities on what science has taught and is teaching us about substance use and addiction.
Each of us has a growing collection of knowledge on substances and we gather this information from a variety of sources throughout our life. So, at this moment in time, it is a safe assumption that the media has largely influenced our collection of knowledge on substances. Whether it is coming from the media or elsewhere, misinformation is dangerous and has repercussions. It is especially important to prevent misinformation from becoming part of a youth’s collection of knowledge.
There are many myths surrounding substances that have already made it to our youth. As mentors, educators, parents, guardians, and community members, we must confront misinformation for ourselves, and then for the youth. In honor of this year’s NDAFW, let’s confront some common myths about substances and substance use:
Myth: Touching fentanyl will cause an overdose.
This is a myth that has been spread widely online. It was even issued as a warning by a government department, which added more credibility. Medical experts have continuously spoken up and provided proof that dispels this myth. It is dangerous for people to believe that skin contact with fentanyl can cause an overdose because anyone present during the event of an overdose may refrain from taking life-saving measures. They may believe that by not physically involving themselves, they are ensuring that they do not come in contact with fentanyl, and so they are keeping themselves out of harm’s way. This misinformation has now prevented them from taking life-saving measures (shatterproof.org).
Myths: Alcohol is fun, desirable, and harmless. You can’t survive without alcohol. Problem-drinking behaviors are normal. Alcohol is a magical potion that can transform you into someone you’d rather be.
These are all messages we get from the media about alcohol. It is nearly impossible to watch television and avoid alcohol marketing. Any downsides to consuming alcohol are conveniently left out of advertisements. Alcohol marketing influences viewers to believe that “Alcohol is related to parties, good times, celebrations and fun,” but it leaves out that alcohol “is also related to murder, suicide, unemployment and child abuse” (theconversation.com).
Myth: Nicotine reduces stress levels.
Nicotine triggers the release of pleasure-inducing chemicals that make users feel good momentarily. This process creates the illusion that smoking or vaping nicotine has psychological benefits of stress relief. The tobacco industry uses the common misinformation, that nicotine reduces stress levels, as a marketing tool. One popular vaping brand marketed their product as a way to “stay sane” during the pandemic, claiming it is “the perfect escape from back-to-back zoom calls, parental texts, and work-from-home stress” (truthinitiative.org). Research has shown that quitting nicotine is associated with lower levels of stress, anxiety, and depression. A survey of youth who quit vaping nicotine found that 90% of those who quit felt less stressed, anxious, or depressed.
Myth: Marijuana is not addictive.
For a long time, it’s been a widely held belief that marijuana is not addictive. Current research shows that marijuana can be both physically and psychologically addictive. Read more about how marijuana can be an addictive substance and other common myths about it here: mcwell.nd.edu
Myth: If these products were truly dangerous, the media would tell us!
News coverage of the reality of substance use often excludes the downsides to the two major killers: alcohol and nicotine. “From coverage, one would assume that cocaine was the United States’ most dangerous drug. However, while cocaine, heroin and other illegal drugs are linked with about 20,000 deaths a year, alcohol contributes to at least 100,000 and cigarettes more than 390,000 – or more than 1,000 a day” (theconversation.com).
Panic and stigma arise from misinformation. At the very least, consuming misinformation steals our time. Researchers who were aware of the myth about fentanyl, tracked the actual information and misinformation activity online to understand the spread of it. They found that between 2015 and 2019, inaccurate information about fentanyl had reached 15 times more people than the accurate information. A lot of the misinformation originated on Facebook and reached around 67 million people (theconversation.com).
If the misinformation fulfills its purpose, it alters lives and not to the benefit of the consumer. For example, if a commercial can make people believe that alcohol is essential to having a good time, then sales will increase, and likely, not everyone will have a good time. It is and will be a constant challenge to understand the real facts about drugs and alcohol. As these substances are actively available across our communities, and misinformation continues to develop and spread, access to up-to-date and accurate information is critical.