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Inaccuracy and Stigma in Coverage of Australia’s so-called “Ice Epidemic”

Australian media outlets are portraying problematic ice use as an “epidemic”, but such excessive coverage of the most extreme consequences of use may be inaccurate and dangerous.

The Australian media is rife with coverage of an apparent epidemic of problematic crystal methylamphetamine (“ice”) use.

"Ice’s terrifying grip", News.com.au reports, “Inside Australia’s drug epidemic: how ice is tearing our country apart".

“Ice takes hold across Australia,” the Daily Telegraph claims.

It’s not just print media that is sensationalising the prevalence of ice. In February, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation launched a new documentary series called “Ice Wars,” which baits their audience with suspenseful scenes of lab raids and drug seizures.

So how widespread is it really?

On March 26, the Australian Criminal Intelligence Commission (ACIC) published a drug use monitoring report based on wastewater analysis.

Among the substances tested for – including cocaine, MDMA, and fentanyl – methylamphetamine was the most commonly found drug. According to the report, "consumption of other stimulants was [found to be] generally much lower" than that of ice.

While this report confirms suspicions that ice use is more common than that of many other drugs, it is not indicative of an “epidemic”.

In February, Dr. Nicole Lee, associate professor at Australia’s National Drug Research Institute, insisted that the media’s claims of ice use becoming an epidemic were untrue. In an interview with ABC Adelaide’s Mornings program, Dr. Lee criticised the media’s portrayal of ice use and sought to address misconceptions regarding the recent shift in use trends.

According to Dr. Lee’s research, ice lifetime use rates have remained relatively consistent and have most likely decreased over the last 15 years.

There is, however, a significant issue that needs to be addressed; “we haven’t seen an increase in the number of people using, but we have seen an increase in the number of people using having problems”, Dr. Lee explained.

Rather than reducing risks, exaggerated coverage and campaigns may actually be worsening the problem by increasing stigmatisation, she added.

Source: Australia Department of Health

In 2015, Australia launched the $11 million “Ice Destroys Lives” campaign which exclusively focuses on psychotic symptoms associated with ice use.

One advert depicts a young man, supposedly under the influence of ice, who attacks two police officers and a nurse before hurling a chair across the room, shattering a window. Another particularly gruesome piece shows a woman digging into her skin to remove the bugs she believes to be crawling underneath. 

Dr. Lee insists that only 25 per cent of people who use ice regularly will experience “some type of aggressive or psychotic symptoms".

She argues that the “fear messages” put forward by government-funded media campaigns are stigmatising and counterproductive; they can make people feel ashamed to discuss, or seek help for, their problematic drug use.

Additionally, Dr. Lee says, "sometimes those scare tactics and media campaigns can actually increase young people’s interest in using”.

Concerns about the unintended consequences of fear-inducing media campaigns are backed by scientific studies on this topic.

A widely referenced 2008 evaluation of the Montana Meth Project in the U.S., an advertising campaign which similarly portrays the extreme consequences of ice use using graphic images, found a threefold increase in the number of teenagers who perceived ice use as not risky after six months of exposure to the campaign. In the same study, about half of teenagers reported believing that the adverts exaggerated the effects of ice use.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance, “eight separate government evaluations [of the US’ National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign] have concluded that the ads have had no measurable impact on drug use among youth”.

The media may be misrepresenting the threat of ice use in Australia, but underestimating the harms of the drug is equally problematic.

At a 2015 roundtable discussion convened by the independent think tank Australia21, law enforcement officials and public health professionals alike shared a mutual understanding of the urgent need for drug reform efforts.

In the summary of the report, Can Australia Respond to Drugs More Effectively and Safely?, Australia21 warned that the contemporary stigmatising approach to drugs was hindering progress.

“We hope that the political culture in drug policy will soon be changed and that an area dominated for many years by moralism, stigma and fear campaigns will increasingly be dominated by compassion, respect for evidence, cost effectiveness, respect for the rule of law and a search for better outcomes.”

It seems unlikely that many in the media will heed experts’ warnings about reporting that prioritises shock value, as such coverage sells papers. But, perhaps the government will acknowledge the failures and dangers of such campaigns.

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