Its conclusion is based on a now nearly three-year-old study, done by Westat and the Annenberg School for Communication for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, that regularly tracked the ad campaign.
"The evaluation provides credible evidence that the campaign was not effective in reducing youth drug use, either during the entire period of the campaign or from 2002 to 2004 when the campaign was focused on marijuana use," said the GAO report, which was requested by the Senate Appropriations Committee. The report could raise new challenges for the government ad program, which has faced declines in funding from Congress.
Study's funding cut off
The drug office cut off annual funding for the $7 million study two years ago, questioning its expense, its long delay in providing information and its accuracy. At the time, the drug office noted that the government's main measure of teen drug use -- an annual Monitoring the Future study by the University of Michigan -- was showing dramatic declines in teen drug usage even as the Westat study seesawed on the campaign's success.
The drug office and the Partnership for a Drug-Free America, which does creative for the drug office (Interpublic Group of Cos.' FCB is the campaign's agency), also complained that the Westat study tracked drug use over too short a time, and wasn't as useful as less-expensive, more traditional ad research. The drug office made some of the same complaints to the GAO, which dismissed them.
"Our examination of Westat's evaluation report and related documentation led us to conclude that it addressed each of these challenges sufficiently to allow it to report credible findings about the effect of campaign exposure on drug use," today's report said.
While the Westat study found that some youth and their parents were becoming less likely to try drugs, it found little evidence that was a result of the ad campaign.
Tom Riley, director-communications for the White House drug program, dismissed the GAO report as "largely irrelevant," noting it is based on activities from two to three years ago. He also said the success of the campaign is obvious based on evidence of declining drug use in the government's own study.
"Teen use is down dramatically over the last four years in exactly the demographics targeted by the campaign," Mr. Riley said. "Yet there has been no movement in any other demographics. Do the math. It's common sense."
He said he didn't think the GAO report would affect congressional funding because "the results are right in front of us. The campaign has delivered what was promised."
Steve Pasierb, president-CEO of the Partnership, said the Westat study results are dubious because it tried too hard to establish a causal relationship and ended up making assumptions. "Show me an advertiser in America that evaluates a campaign this way. It is lunacy. Every ad has been pretested, and the result is that drug use is down 19% in the last four years."
Mr. Pasierb also predicted the study wouldn't have a significant effect on congressional support. "It doesn't help," he said, "but Congress understands that drug use is headed in the right way."