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Drugs & Health Blog

Blast from the Past: "Just Say No"

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated. For the latest content, please visit the main Drugs & Health Blog page.
Sara Bellum

In 1982, then-First Lady Nancy Reagan launched an anti-drug campaign famously known as “Just say no.”

While many people—including public health experts—believed the message was an important one to get out to teens, others thought it was way too simplistic and would not appeal to them.

The message appealed to Mrs. Reagan, who campaigned tirelessly for the effort, appearing on television news, giving speeches, and writing newspaper editorials. She even produced a series of public service announcements with actor Clint Eastwood and got help from movie theaters to deliver the message.

In the end, the campaign was not effective in preventing teen drug abuse, and the phrase “just say no” has become something of a pop-culture joke.

Since that time, developing effective prevention messages has become a lot more sophisticated. Lessons learned include focusing on the facts about drug abuse so teens can make informed decision for themselves.

Another lesson learned is that teens are much more likely to pay attention when they are involved in the process. The Above the Influence campaign, for example, invites you and your peers to “share your voice” by submitting stories and videos about how drugs may have affected you or someone you know.

Check out the bulletin board at Above the Influence to see what teens are saying about peer pressure and other things. Lynn says, “Giving in is giving up.” Or Bobbi: “We are what we want to be, not what others want us to be, so don’t let the pressure get to you!”

Or as J.J. raps in his post, “Live Your Life:”

What’s the point of doing those drugs,

It just makes u weak, and clouds up ya lungs,

It messes you up, It gets u high,

But then you’ll see, 

That you only did it to die

That’s a powerful message. So, now you tell us—how do you say no to drugs?

Update: Above the Influence has taken down the bulletin board. Share your voice on the Above the Influence Facebook page.

Comments posted to the Drugs & Health Blog are from the general public and may contain inaccurate information. They do not represent the views of NIDA or any other federal government entity.


Amazingly 1982 was my birth year and her launching year.

I think a major problem with most drug programs is they treat kids like idiots to some extent and feel they cannot communicate the real complexities of reality to them without being misunderstood. I think this underestimates children.

We live in a chemical world, we use chemicals for all sorts of things in culturally acceptable ways, including mood alterance. It is culturally acceptable to have an alcoholic drink to loosen social inhibitions at a party, wedding or dinner. It is not culturally acceptable (in America... unfortunately - and it is unfortunate - it is mostly acceptable in the UK in many social circles) to drink to the point of stumbling around the streets singing out of tune, stealing traffic cones and giggling like an idiot while trying to climb a lampost (I saw a guy do this, break his foot, be too drunk to realise his foot was broken until the morning, and in the morning the screeeeammms of agony... oh my!).

It's very socially acceptable to have a coffee to wake up in the morning, to continue drinking coffee throughout the working day to stay alert and then have more coffee to stay up late at night to work on a report. It's not socially or culturally acceptable to pop dexies for the same reason.

And there are reasons for this. We can't say it's because dexies are necessarily more addictive, since coffee has something of a withdrawal syndrome of it's own and I'd say quite a few adults are hooked on it. Rather it's because the consequences of dexies are worse, amphetamines can cause psychosis, and if caffeine can, it very rarely does, while amphetamines often do. Amphetamines allow people to forgo sleep entirely where as caffeine merely delays it, sleep still seems to be necessary even in this modern age so drugs that allow people to ignore the sleep imperative are doing people a disservice in the long run.

Some people can handle even really "hardcore" drugs for some reason, but we as a society have decided protecting those that can't (which is a large number and tends to consist of precisely the people who say they can handle it) is worth depriving those who can. Sometimes drugs which would otherwise be unacceptable, for instance valium or opiate painkillers, are deemed acceptable for specific individuals with specific conditions, and often in those cases dependence will occur in a socially acceptable fashion just as with caffeine. It's not even the addictiveness that is bad, but the entire social context. These complexities might be hard to get accross in a formal fashion - but they are well know to children who just need to look around to see that mum can take anti-depressants to alter her mood, suzy is given valium at exam time to prevent her panic attacks, timothy is on ritalin and no-one except a few noisy hippies seems to be protesting, and all and sundry adults are constantly joking about needing their coffee after a night out drinking. They can see the social complexity of it all already, and that needs to be explained. You can't just say drugs are bad, because kids take "drugs are bad" to mean "people who use drugs are bad" and if they see people around them who are not by any real stretch of the imagination thieving junkies or burnt out crack [expletive deleted, per guidelines], they think "all that drugs are bad [expletive deleted, per guidelines] is nonsense".

@ann Thank you for pointing out that “drugs are bad” DOES NOT mean that “people who use drugs are bad.” That is a very important distinction that all too frequently gets lost!

Saying no isn't as easy as some people think, from a personal perspective i know that when i was almost forced into something it took a lot of effort to say no and leave. for some people that can not stick up for them self that is probably a huge issue for them. i think that if you have to force someone into doing something they don't want to, go into their shoes and see how it feels for them to be pushed and forced into doing something that they do not want to do.