The effect of media publicity on the incidence and characteristics of drug abuse in Melbourne

Criminology Research Council grant ; (7/83)

The study found that electronic and print media frequently refer to drugs in their new stories and in magazine material and drama programs, but alcohol and tobacco are rarely referred to as 'drugs' and their use is generally condoned. Their advertising ranks eleventh and fourteenth in product advertising expenditure. Prescription and over-the-counter drugs are rarely mentioned in news or drama items but they rank thirteenth in product advertising expenditure. Illicit substances are more often featured in their criminological context.

The influence of the media on drug use and abuse remains unclear. It is possible that some sensationalised public health campaigns may:

  • irrationally increase community fear and prejudice which results in their calling for punitive legislative reaction;
  • simplify and trivialise the drug situation so that 'easy' answers such as legislation and advertising controls can seem appropriate and long-term prevention measures appear to be overlooked;
  • be counter-productive among individuals at risk because they sensationalise illicit drug use.

There is no evidence to suggest that advertising can greatly increase community consumption of any particular substance. However, some effect on the pattern of use among particular individuals cannot be ruled out.

The study also examined Operation Noah which was a one-day, joint media-police operation on 11 December 1982, aimed at eliciting information from the public about drug trafficking in Victoria. Media coverage to the Operation was often sensationalised and inaccurate. Police responded actively to three-quarters of over 400 telephone responses from the community and this involved them in 381 visits to premises, 40 search warrants and 96 searches without warrant. Drugs were found in 33 places; nearly all of these were marijuana. Twenty-two people were charged with drug offences.

There was a 35 per cent increase in the number of drug offenders charged by Victoria Police in metropolitan Melbourne during November, December and January 1982-83 compared with the same period a year earlier. In contrast, only 10 people were charged with trafficking offences alone in November, December and January 1982-83 compared with 23 in the same period of the previous year. Further, there was 29 per cent increase in the number of drug overdose patients taken to hospital by Ambulance Service Melbourne during November, December and January '1982-83, compared with the same period a year earlier. However, the timing of these increases meant that they could not be attributed to the effects of Operation Noah.

Operation Noah had some effect on drug abuse in Melbourne when measured in terms of numbers of drug offenders and drug overdose patients who came to notice of the police and ambulance services. However, in enforcement terms, the Operation did not achieve its objective of eliciting information which resulted in prosecution of drug traffickers, manufacturers and growers in the community. The value of the Operation as an enforcement tool must therefore remain doubtful. However, Operation Noah is a particularly good example of the way police and the media can work together and, in as much as this provides a mechanism through which they can increase their mutual understanding of each other's professional roles, the concept has the potential for development into a useful drug abuse countermeasure.