Maia Szalavitz On Media Coverage Of Drugs And Alcohol

(Maia Szalavitz)
I spoke today with Maia Szalavitz, a freelance journalist and a Senior Fellow at STATS*, whose mission is "to address the abuse of science and statistics in the media and public policy debates." The focus of our conversation was media coverage of drugs and alcohol. You can listen to the full interview by clicking on the link below, and read excerpts below.

to listen to the interview.
Brian Montopoli: From your writings, it's clear that you do think drugs and alcohol can be dangerous.

Maia Szalavitz: Absolutely.

Brian Montopoli: So what is your objection then to the media's portrayal of them?

Maia Szalavitz: If you scare people unduly, you're going to scare people about the wrong things. Essentially, what we do is we hype these fears up. We tell people, for example, that alcohol damages the teenage brain. Well, something like 90 percent of us drank during our adolescence. Are we all brain damaged? We need to put risks in context.

Brian Montopoli: There was a "60 Minutes" piece that you wrote about for Alternet a while back where you were complaining that "60" presented the issue as, sort of, "we must stop teens from ever getting near drugs or alcohol."

Maia Szalavitz: Well, let me say this: I'm not advocating that teenagers should use drugs or alcohol. But I am saying that since 90 percent of teenagers do drink before they reach the legal age, our policies that we currently have clearly aren't working. I believe that the data is pretty clear, that if you teach people how to do something, they will be more responsible at doing it than if you just let them loose at a certain age to just go do it. As a society, we haven't come to terms with this with regard to alcohol. We recognize that if you want a person to drive safely, they need to be taught explicitly what to do. But with alcohol we're very very uncomfortable with that.

Brian Montopoli: Why do you think that the media do cover drugs and alcohol the way they do?

Maia Szalavitz: I think because they're taking a parental perspective. And I think what has happened is that there are many organizations, amongst which you might include the US government, which have an agenda of pushing a particular view about alcohol and drugs. And usually, the media tends to be skeptical about government pronouncements – or historically, it was skeptical. But when it comes to drugs, we just lose all skepticism. And we tend to think, "Well, opposing drugs is good. So all people who oppose drugs must be telling us the truth." And, unfortunately, they're not. And a lot of people's jobs ride on pushing particular misinformation about drugs.

Brian Montopoli: Also, just to give my own two cents, presumably there is some incentive for the media to portray drugs and alcohol in the worst possible way because scary stories about teenagers dying tend to be good business.

Maia Szalavitz: That's right – if it bleeds it leads. There is a sort of collaboration between the media and various advocacy groups where the biggest number is the best number, even if it's not the most accurate number. And that's an unfortunate consequence of the structure of the media. And there may not be much to do about that, other than to teach people to read critically, and to look things up, and to think it through.

For example, one of the things that I've written a lot about is that there are these boot camp, kind of "tough love" places for kids.

Brian Montopoli: Right. You wrote a book.

Maia Szalavitz: Yes, called Help At Any Cost. And these organizations terrorize parents into thinking that if your teenager is smoking or drinking alcohol that they need immediate help and that they're going to be shooting heroin the next week. And there's no evidence for that. There's actually no evidence that these treatments actually help. So we need to look at the agendas of various organizations that are pushing particular points of view about drugs and alcohol.

Brian Montopoli: How did you become interested in this topic?

Maia Szalavitz: I actually am a former addict myself. I was a cocaine and heroin addict in my 20s. And I was surprised -- during my using I learned one set of myths about drugs. In rehab I was taught another set of myths about drugs. And it wasn't until I actually read the research myself that I realized that almost everything I had known was wrong. So I became fascinated by this, and became fascinated by why we persistently view this area in such a bizarre way.

Brian Montopoli: I saw that there was a video of you on Lou Dobbs' show on CNN discussing, and disagreeing with him, about the coverage that he does of drugs. Are you seen as someone who is soft on drugs? It's almost like a politician. If you were a politician…

Maia Szalavitz: Right, right. You could characterize it that way. Although the way I see it is that I'm smart about drugs. I have looked at the research over and over, and followed it for years, and what I am concerned about is different than what drug warriors are concerned about. What I am concerned about is drug-related harm. I don't want to see people dying, I don't want to see people being addicted, I don't want to see people destroying their families. I don't want to see people crashing in drunk-driving accidents. I really don't care if somebody takes drugs for recreational purposes and enjoys them. I don't have a moral agenda in that. My moral agenda is about reducing drug-related harm.

Brian Montopoli: So you're saying that the way you look at it is ultimately more responsible? And you think the media would be more responsible if reporting was more the way that you think it should be, instead of this "drugs and alcohol are bad, period" reporting?

Maia Szalavitz: Yes. If we look at the example of HIV and AIDS, you can see this very well illustrated. In the 1980s, the United Kingdom was faced with the threat of I.V. drug use-related AIDS. Thatcher was their prime minister, and she appointed some people to look at it. And they basically decided that AIDS is a more serious health threat than drug use. So they massively reversed their drug policy – which they had been following ours for a few years there, pretty much – and they decided, "we're going to give out clean needles, we're going to do more maintenance, we're going to not focus so much on getting people to stop using, but on preventing this deadly disease with no cure." And they also realized that addicts were the source for a heterosexual epidemic, potentially.

The United Kingdom did not have a heterosexual epidemic. They did not have an IV drug use epidemic to speak of. In IV drug users in Liverpool, which was at the time the capitol of IV drug use in the UK, and probably still is, the infection rate never went over 1 percent. In New York City, where we didn't do needle exchange until ten years later in a large way, the infection rate in addicts went up to 50 percent, and we still have an ongoing epidemic amongst heterosexuals in minority communities that is not due, mainly, to men on the "down low," but mainly to IV drug use. And it's easier to get an addict to use a clean needle than it is to get a man to use a condom, because a clean needle improves the high.

Brian Montopoli: You are a pragmatist.

Maia Szalavitz: Yes, I believe that policy should be pragmatic, and that it should be based on the best available data.

Brian Montopoli: In terms of where STATS gets its support, who's behind it? Is there any support from…

Maia Szalavitz: No, there's no industry support. STATS receives support from foundations. And so we are not funded by the alcohol and tobacco industries, and we are not funded by Columbia drug deals or something like that, or any other form of drug dealers.

Brian Montopoli: Well, that's a relief.

Maia Szalavitz: Yeah, there is not an agenda in terms of that.

*FULL DISCLOSURE: Matthew Felling, my co-editor here at Public Eye, used to work for the Center For Media And Public Affairs, which is an affiliate of STATS.