Oregon Health Authority Campaigns for Teens

teen-smokingLast summer, the Oregon Health Authority launched a statewide campaign created to encourage Oregonians under the legal age limit of 21 to avoid marijuana use until they are older.

Thanks to $3.97 million tax dollars provided by the Oregon Legislature after it passed House Bill 4014—regulating marijuana sales under the OLCC—and Senate Bill 1597—which creates provisions for social welfare programs, the OHA was able to generate a multimedia campaign that includes billboards, social media and digital advertising aimed at Oregon high school students living in both metropolitan and rural areas.

In the fall of 2016, the campaign’s digital ads ran on video-streaming websites such as YouTube, providing Oregon’s teens with information about the effects of marijuana specifically chosen by other teens in focus groups created for the campaign by the OHA.

The campaign, according to Jonathan Modie, OHA’s Director of Communications, is not meant to vilify or prevent the use of marijuana. As a government agency that works alongside the OLCC in the effort to provide more licenses for recreational marijuana sales in the state—while continuing to improve Oregon’s burgeoning economy through legal pot sales—the OHA’s goal in creating the campaign is to help those who are under the legal age to buy pot to make informed decisions about using it themselves. “It’s not an anti-marijuana campaign,” Modie stated in an Advocate interview, wherein he explained the reasons for the legislation, campaign message, and overall purpose of StayTrueToYou, one of two campaigns the OHA created last year to encourage young people to avoid using pot or at least wait until they are older.

The OHA’s second campaign related to marijuana use is called Talk with Them. It’s directed at parents and encourages them to have open and honest conversations with their children about marijuana use.

The OHA used two surveys of Oregon teens to find out which teens use marijuana, what their attitudes are regarding pot use, how their behaviors are affected by current use, and who were most at risk for early pot use and possible abuse.

The Student Wellness survey and Oregon Healthy Teens survey, both anonymous, school-based self-assessments conducted in 2015, collected data among 8th-graders and 11th-graders living in Oregon. The results of both surveys were compared with those of a national teen survey called Monitoring the Future. The results of all surveys can be viewed in the OHA Public Health Division’s Marijuana Report, published last January.

The OHA presented the Legislature with several recent scientific studies that detailed the negative effects of marijuana use on teens whose brains are still developing. “The brain is at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives so the concern is that marijuana use will potentially affect their abilities to read, learn, and do things they enjoy,” said Modie.

Modie was more than happy to provide the results of several scientific studies conducted no earlier than over the past two years to support the OHA’s claims that marijuana can, indeed, have negative effects on teen learning and brain development, along with detailed citations to the sources of said studies. The Oregon Public Health Division’s approved statements are based upon reviews and reports from several scientific studies, which include a 2014 study from Colorado, a 2015 RAND report evidence review, and a 2014 report taken directly from Oregon’s Washington County.

Notable statements released from the public health sector concerning teen marijuana use, detailed in documents that are available to the public, include the following:

“Regular marijuana use by adolescents and young adults is associated with impaired learning, memory, math and reading achievement, even 28 days after the last use [and] these impairments increase with more frequent marijuana use.”

“Regular marijuana use by adolescents is associated with low academic achievement, such as not graduating from high school.”

The Public Health sector did not approve any statements claiming whether marijuana use by adolescents and young adults was associated with depression, anxiety, or suicidal thoughts—as the report explained, studies in this particular zone had conflicting results.

In addition to aiding learning along with mental and emotional development, the OHA seeks to prevent teen injuries and fatalities from overdoses and car accidents.

“We have found that annual marijuana-related calls to the Oregon Poison Center, based at the Oregon Health and Science University, have increased between 2013 and 2015,” said Modie. This increase, explained OHA press representatives, coincides with increased legality of marijuana in the state. “Among 13- to 19-year-olds, calls went from about 32% in 2013… then jumped up to about 40% in 2015,” Modie explained. Unlike the Oregon Poison Control Center, the Oregon Poison Center at OHSU compiles detailed information about all callers, including age, gender, and ethnicity.

In the Oregon Healthy Teens survey, students were asked how many times they’d driven a vehicle within three hours of using marijuana. Of all 11th-grade students surveyed, approximately 1 in 20 females (5%) and 1 in 15 males (7%) reported that they had driven vehicles within three hours of using pot at least once over the past 30 days. Though no information is available regarding whether the pot use did indeed cause the teens to get into car accidents, additional studies on adults also published in last January’s report showed that the number of adults who drove under the influence of marijuana was much higher, and frequent users were 36% more likely than infrequent users to drive under the influence. Since another Health Division-approved statement reads that starting marijuana use during adolescence or young adulthood is associated with overuse of cannabis in adults, one could deduce that teens who frequently use pot are more likely to drive while high as adults.

Subscribers to YouTube and online digital video like Hulu and XFinity TV can see many of the ads, which feature a diverse group of teenagers representing various ages, genders, ethnic groups, sexual orientations, and socioeconomic statuses.

After viewing a similar ad campaign that came out of Colorado, focus groups of Oregon teens that helped the OHA in creating these ads decided that our state needed a message that spoke to the particular diversity of Oregonians. Ads in Colorado, reported Oregon kids, did not portray the diversity of attitudes of Oregon teens, while professionals in charge of surveying recalled messages of the 1980s, such as Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” campaign, as being ineffective since telling a child not to do something often results in them doing the exact opposite.

The most important aspect of the StayTrueToYou campaign is the way it speaks to local teens. Sharing information about teens’ experience with pot in a non-judgmental manner, said OHA representatives, will be far more effective than the strategy of telling them to just say no—a message which unfortunately may go into play on the federal level.

President-elect Donald Trump’s future appointed Attorney General Jeff Sessions, a current senator, is an outspoken fan of First Lady Reagan’s anti-drug campaign and has caused concern that he might re-use the campaign once in office. Sessions was quoted recently as saying, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana,” a message that is not only wildly incorrect but also serves no purpose at all in persuading teens to make healthy choices when it comes to drug use. Since teens are the ones most at risk, rather than adults, the vague quality of Session’s statement is concerning as one of a man who may become in charge of the fate of legal marijuana in the United States.

By Kiki Genoa