Do media campaigns prevent young people from using illicit drugs?

Media campaigns to prevent illicit drug use are a widespread intervention. We reviewed 23 studies of different designs involving 188,934 young people and conducted in the United States, Canada and Australia. The studies tested different interventions and used several questionnaires to interview the young people about the effects of having participated in the studies brought to them. As a result it was very difficult to reach conclusions and for this reason we are highlighting the need for further studies.

Authors' conclusions: 

Overall the available evidence does not allow conclusions about the effect of media campaigns on illicit drug use among young people. We conclude that further studies are needed.

Read the full abstract...

Substance-specific mass media campaigns which address young people are widely used to prevent illicit drug use. They aim to reduce use and raise awareness of the problem.


To assess the effectiveness of mass media campaigns in preventing or reducing the use of or intention to use illicit drugs amongst young people.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL, The Cochrane Library 2013, Issue 1), including the Cochrane Drugs and Alcohol Group's Specialised Register; MEDLINE through PubMed (from 1966 to 29 January 2013); EMBASE (from 1974 to 30 January 2013) and ProQuest Dissertations & Theses A&I (from 1861 to 3 February 2013).

Selection criteria: 

Cluster-randomised controlled trials, prospective and retrospective cohort studies, interrupted time series and controlled before and after studies evaluating the effectiveness of mass media campaigns in influencing drug use, intention to use or the attitude of young people under the age of 26 towards illicit drugs.

Data collection and analysis: 

We used the standard methodological procedures of The Cochrane Collaboration.

Main results: 

We included 23 studies involving 188,934 young people, conducted in the USA, Canada and Australia between 1991 and 2012. Twelve studies were randomised controlled trials (RCT), two were prospective cohort studies (PCS), one study was both a RCT and a PCS, six were interrupted time series and two were controlled before and after (CBA) studies. The RCTs had an overall low risk of bias, along with the ITS (apart from the dimension 'formal test of trend'), and the PCS had overall good quality, apart from the description of loss to follow-up by exposure.

Self reported or biomarker-assessed illicit drug use was measured with an array of published and unpublished scales making comparisons difficult. Pooled results of five RCTs (N = 5470) show no effect of media campaign intervention (standardised mean difference (SMD) -0.02; 95% confidence interval (CI) -0.15 to 0.12).

We also pooled five ITS studies (N = 26,405) focusing specifically on methamphetamine use. Out of four pooled estimates (two endpoints measured in two age groups), there was evidence of a reduction only in past-year prevalence of methamphetamine use among 12 to 17 years old.

A further five studies (designs = one RCT with PCS, two PCS, two ITS, one CBA, N = 151,508), which could not be included in meta-analyses, reported a drug use outcome with varied results including a clear iatrogenic effect in one case and reduction of use in another.