More on the media and moral panics

In my post on the bizarre media frenzy over “snorting Smarties,” I posited that media-driven panics may drive more people to engage in dubious trends than were ever trying it in the first place. In other words, press coverage of nonexistent trends could end up creating those very trends.

Reader Brian Hawkins e-mails with some historical evidence that this may be true:

I taught a course on neurochemistry, behavior, and drugs of abuse a few years back. In prepping my lecture on inhalants, I came across the following in Drugs and Behavior (McKim, 6th ed):

“Before 1959, there are very few reports of anyone deliberately inhaling the vapors of glues, solvents, and fuels, but by the end of the 1960′s, the practice of solvent sniffing had become widespread… Ironically, the [cause] seems to have been publicity and widespread public health warnings as described by the Consumers Union Report on Licit and Illicit Drugs published in 1972 (Brecher & the Editors of Consumer Reports, 1972).”

He goes on to describe the first known mention of glue sniffing in the press, a story in the Denver Post in August of 1959 about arrests of some kids in Pueblo and Tucson for sniffing glue. The article “included detailed instructions on how the glue was being inhaled” and its effects. By June of 1960, the Denver police had investigated 50 cases of glue sniffing, whereas previously it was completely unknown to them.

A similar cycle of panic preceding an apparent uptick in use seems to have happened with aerosols in the 70′s and with gasoline in the 90′s.

So . . . yeah, there is reason to believe that this kind of coverage does more harm than good.

I haven’t read it, but here’s the textbook to which Hawkins is referring.

Radley Balko blogs about criminal justice, the drug war and civil liberties for The Washington Post. He is the author of the book "Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces."
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Radley Balko · January 23