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Drugs & Health Blog

Scare Tactics: Does Fear Influence Your Opinion About Drug Abuse?

This blog post is archived and is no longer being updated.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

For decades, organizations have used scare tactics to discourage teens from abusing drugs. One of the earliest examples is Reefer Madness—a film produced in the 1930s and re-released in the 1970s—that depicted a series of exaggerated (and tragic) events happening to high school students who tried marijuana.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the infamous “This Is Your Brain on Drugs” public service announcements (PSAs) aired on television, showing a parent frying an egg in a pan. These days, you can still see graphic PSAs on television or on the Web that show the dire consequences of drug abuse—such as PSAs from The Meth Project.

Does Fear Drive Behavior?

Scare tactics attempt to use fear to motivate behavior change. They create fear by presenting a behavior, like drug use, that can cause severe physical or emotional injury (overdose, lost relationships), and then they recommend a specific action to prevent the injury (like “don’t take drugs”).

Researchers have studied the effect of scare tactics on young adults and found mixed results—some found that fear influenced behavior, others did not. It depends on whether teens perceive a threat to their safety and how they react to that threat.

When faced with scare tactics in drug abuse prevention messages, some teens will feel a commitment (or a re-commitment) to stay away from drugs. Others will reject the message and either deny that abusing drugs is dangerous or deny that they will suffer the worst effects of drug abuse (“that won’t happen to me”). Some may laugh at drug abuse prevention messages that try too hard or are “over the top.”

Whether or not scare tactics work with you, research shows what you probably already know: Teens recognize when they are being manipulated to think or behave a certain way.

Just the Facts

Recognizing that teens want to be treated as equals, NIDA scientists don’t preach about the evils of drug use—or use scare tactics to influence behavior. Instead, we deliver science-based facts about how drugs affect the brain and body so that teens will have the information they need to make healthy decisions.

Do you think that NIDA has the right idea with spreading the facts? Do scare tactics influence your friends’ behavior when it comes to drug abuse or other health-related issues?

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.


yes it does

youre lying

Looking at NIDA's page on marijuana (which is actually a slang term, Cannabis Sativa is the scientific name), there is no mention of potential benefits to occasional cannabis use. There is no mention of the spiritual use of cannabis, and there is no mention of the cannabis' history in human society.

This in itself is a form of scare tactic. NIDA does deliver science-based fact, yet NIDA also leaves out science-based facts that prove cannabis' benefit. By delivering only negative information, NIDA employs scare tactics by implying that only negative consequences can arise from cannabis use.

Promoting negative consequences as the only result of cannabis use induces fear into readers, using the exact scare tactic this article claims NIDA does not use.

NIDA’s mission is to support research to prevent and treat drug abuse and addiction. While important areas of study, the anthropological history and potential therapeutic benefits of drugs of abuse do not fall within NIDA’s scope. That being said, on our website, we do note that “Scientists have confirmed that the cannabis plant contains active ingredients with therapeutic potential for relieving pain, controlling nausea, stimulating appetite, and decreasing ocular pressure… Scientists continue to investigate the medicinal properties of THC and other cannabinoids to better evaluate and harness their ability to help patients suffering from a broad range of conditions, while avoiding the adverse effects of smoked marijuana.”

I know that the scare tactics back in the 80's really steered my away from drugs. Especially the "this is yourBrain on Drugs" commercials. I think they should bring them back! [commercial link removed, per guidelines]

This website is only contributing to the lies created by the "War on Drugs" started in the '80s. We will never win this so-called "War on Drugs" because it is only increasing the crime rates related to drug use. And the only reason why drug abuse is emphasized so much by the federal government is so it can be used as a scare tactic to win votes for undeserving politicians.

End the deficit - legalize pot and tax it. This is a free country isn't it? Let people be free to make their own mistakes. Anybody who disagrees is too ignorant to know the difference.

I think that scare tactics do work. At my school, they really enforce how drug abuse can ruin, and take, your life. For me personally, that makes a major difference. Knowing all the dangers of drugs keeps me from ever touching alcohol or drugs, legal or not. I believe that through spreading the facts it keeps people informed, yet the decision is still theirs. In knowing the info, you have the ability to make a decision, and hopefully a healthy one. Scare tactics are a simple but efficent way to keep people in the know about drugs . That is why I think that scare tactis do influence your opinion about drug abuse by knowing the harmful and addictive way of drugs.

I think scare tactics might make some kids scared but not all i think it depends on the person. If someone is not afraid to do drugs and then someone trys to use a scare tactic to try to scare them it probably wont work or change their mind or what they beileve. But I still think that NIDA has the right idea with spreading the facts. I also thibnk scare tactics influence some of my friends behaviors when it somes to drugs or other health-related issues but others just dont care and they do what they want and I dont think anything really matters to them.

Yes! i agree.
Scare tactic influence a person behavior about drugs when he think about his health related issues to some extent. The fear is obvious. But some people need to think it about how much drug abuse his health and othe mind condition. they know what the are doing but not bother it. And at the end they lost their health and other God gifted opportunities just because of that.

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I love NIDA for the approach leaves no child behind, I mean if you are not a drug abuser, then benefits, if you are and educate to stop, then benefits of life, but, it you are determined to have risky behavior, I believe NIDA wants you to know why with clinical trails and research, with protection benefits. So I feel those stuck on one drug under clinical trials are pushing an agenda when all of the schedules of drugs wait, not one to supersede the other. Besides marijuana had its' 100 year study. I like to know my support is the right support, so kudos to NIDA if you want to know about Marijuana, listen [link removed, per guidelines] now on to what the NIDAminds said, cause they know!

Thanks for sharing this wonderful Information.Great job.
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Instead of scare tactics i support harm reduction. Give people as much accurate and unbiased information that can be given and let them make the decisions for themselves. People have been using drugs for 1000's of years and will continue to use, so lets not scare lets educate.
If scare tactics worked there would be less addicted re-offenders in jail. Keep educating and as early as possible, NIDA is on target!
You know who else uses fear tactics? Terrorists.
In school they told me the horrors of drug use including how marijuana would make me go insane. Once I tried marijuana and realized they'd lied I tried every drug I could once. That's when I realized 99% of what they said were lies. So if you want your kids to try and possibly get hooked on hard drugs keep lying about marijuana to try and scare them. Once they realize the lie its only a matter of time.
I have a 13 year old son and explained to him that I personally feel that alcohol is worse than pot. We have discussed and looked online TOGETHER at the affects ( before & after pics) of meth, crack etc. So he felt that we were researching together. I really felt like he felt like an equal and was equally horrified at the after pics. The war on drugs is a joke and instead we should allocate that budget to helping addicts vs allowing drug trafficking and wasting money on this government scam called this war on drugs. Just my thoughts & experience.
I understand what you are putting down. Using scare tactics in PSAs might be a good way to make kids not take drugs, but relying on it is not the way to go. Just take PFDA's 2013 ad campaign, "Breaking Circuits". That ad freaked the heck out of me. HOWEVER, after watching it again, I realized that the information that they said in their PSA was connected to one drug, rather then all of it's categories: weed. So, moral of this? Never rely too much on scare tactics. Get the information down. It might work on anti-smoking campaigns, but it doesn't work in anti-drug ads really well. It just makes people even more curious.
Most, if not all anti-drug, anti-alcohol, and anti-sex campaigns targeted towards teens rely on scare tactics, and only give out negative information on the subject. As a teenager myself, I can assure you that when we're told not to do something, we will instinctively want to do it to gauge how much of a danger it actually is. When we see that we haven't died from smoking a bowl or drinking at a party, we realize that everyone has been lying to us. If they were wrong about this, what else might they be wrong about? We experiment more, to the point that it could get dangerous. But we refuse to believe it's dangerous, because that's what everyone said in the first place. We don't want to be finally proven wrong after being right over and over again. I think that instead of forcing negative agendas, adults should give us all the facts- including both positive and negative effects- and, even if they tell us not to do it, they should still tell us how to do it safely, as there will be some of us who will do it no matter what you say. That way, we feel like we actually have a say in the matter to choose for ourselves, and if we do choose to do it, at least not as many of us will contract STDs or OD or anything. That's my two cents on the subject, at least.
Many people use drugs to quell fear. Scare tactics have already lead me to use MORE drugs because I want the fear provoked by these tactics to immediately go away. This is DANGEROUS and irresponsible on the part of those trying to "scare" people away from drug use!!