Truth initiative inspiring tobacco-free livesOpioid use in the United States is increasing at an unprecedented rate. Over 17,000 people died from prescription opioid overdose in 2016 alone. The Truth Initiative recently launched “The Truth About Opioids,” in partnership with the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Ad Council, to educate youth and young adults and prevent misuse of opioids. The Truth Initiative’s smoking prevention campaign, truth, has had marked success, preventing over 1 million youth and young adults from smoking.

By expanding their reach to the opioid crisis, the Truth Initiative is poised to make a significant difference using their unique perspective. Public Health Newswire spoke with APHA member Robin Koval, CEO and president of the Truth Initiative, to discuss the opioid campaign and the role of public health in reducing the epidemic.

1. Tell me about when the Truth Initiative decided to take on the opioid crisis and what influenced that decision?

Due to the alarming rates that have been escalating over the past several years, opioids are obviously a very big problem, and there is a real opportunity to use the expertise we have in talking to young people to start solving it.

We are uniquely qualified to make an impact on the opioid epidemic, given the recognition and credibility of the truth brand and our outstanding record of success.

Research has proven that truth has prevented more than 1 million youth and young adults from smoking in nearly 20 years of work in tobacco prevention. Approximately 77 percent of U.S. youth and young adults under age 25 recognize the truth brand, and surveys of our target audience reveal that most youth and young adults agree that truth should play a role in educating the public about opioids.

The truth campaign has accomplished this by engaging young people in conversations about the risks of addiction and enlisting them to not only modify their own behavior, but to influence the cultural norms within their communities.

Tobacco and opioid addiction overlap in several ways. For example, 73 percent of people who misused or were dependent on opioids in the past year also used tobacco in the past month. Evidence also indicates that exposure to nicotine — a highly addictive substance — primes the adolescent brain to be sensitive to other addictive substances. Addressing youth and young adult opioid addiction and misuse is a natural and needed extension of our tobacco prevention work.

2. What is the target audience of the campaign and why is this audience important?

Truth Initiative research found that there is a significant knowledge gap about opioids and their risks, as well as a desire among young people to be part of a solution. Everyone has kind of “heard of the opioid crisis” but at the same time there’s not a lot of understanding about what that really is or the risk.

For this campaign, we focused on reaching youth and young adults ages 15 to 34. We know 17 percent of high school seniors say they have misused opioids in the past year, and in 2016, about 6 million youth and young adults, ages 15 to 24, were prescribed opioids. Due to these alarming statistics, we are especially interested in reaching youth within that age range.

You hear a lot of “well drugs are prescribed,” and “my grandmother takes them, how dangerous can they be?” One of our messages is that opioid dependence can happen in as little as 5 days. This message resonated particularly well with young people since it helped to explain the addictiveness of the drug. By using facts like this, we hope to close the knowledge gap that young people have about the effects of opioids.

We know that when young people have the facts and they understand them that they make the right decisions. We have proven this to be true with our tobacco prevention campaign efforts. We also know that young people have the power to impact others through their social networks. By sharing content like this, we know that they will help spread the word and directly influence their friends in addition to making smart choices themselves.

When young people have the facts and they understand them and they have the means to share them with others, that empowers them.

3. Can you describe what the opioid education and prevention campaign style is and why that style is effective?

The Truth About Opioids is a comprehensive public education campaign focused on preventing and reducing misuse of opioids among youth and young adults. The multichannel campaign is designed to help young people understand the facts about opioids, the risk of addiction and the crucial role young people can play in solving the crisis within their communities.

This campaign includes first-person, true stories of young Americans with an opioid use disorder. These stories feature the fact that “opioid dependence can happen after just five days,” and asks young people to “share the truth and spread the truth” with their peers and communities. That is a hallmark of the truth campaign. We want to be facilitators and we believe that one of the most powerful things we can do is share the facts. When young people have the facts and they understand them and they have the means to share them with others, that empowers them to take action.

4. Do you plan to integrate the Truth About Opioids campaign into the traditional truth about smoking campaign methods, such as the truth tour, in the future if you haven’t already?

They live next to one another on our website. This is very new for us and we are developing more opioid messaging and content to be introduced in the future.

5. Do you have any recommended actions that young people can take to raise awareness on this issue?

The call to action in the messages is very clear: “Know the truth, share the truth.” The goal is to engage young people in conversations about the risks of addiction and enlisting them to not only modify their own behavior, but to influence the cultural norms of their peers and within their communities. That’s why sharing information is very important here. Because of that, the website has a lot of information and resources available for young people to read and use.

6. What additional public health issues tie into the opioid epidemic and how will the campaign address those issues if at all?

The opioid epidemic is devastating our country, which consumes more prescription opioids than any other nation in the world. I think this issue and tobacco tie in to the larger social issue of mental health, health disparities and social determinants of health. It’s not surprising when you look at where some of the hardest hit areas are on the map. These areas often overlap with areas where tobacco also continues to be a major problem. Health issues tend to converge in areas where people have significant economic disparities, little access to health care, etc. Much like with tobacco, the communities impacted by opioids tend to follow similar trends. For example, data show that opioid use among youth is higher among the LGBTQ population. A group that is one of the hardest hit by tobacco use, with overall LGBT adults smoking at rates up to 2.5 times higher than straight adults.

7. How can public health workers use this campaign to improve health in their communities?

The reasons for this epidemic are complex, and we recognize that reducing the toll of the opioid crisis requires a comprehensive, multi-sector effort beyond the reach of public education initiatives. Our contribution to the solution will focus on what we do best — creating, disseminating and evaluating youth, and developing young adult-focused education and prevention messages.

We hope shining a light and providing resources sparks a conversation. Certainly, we are empowering our own youth advocates to share these messages in their communities. We’re working in our sweet spot which is prevention and youth education. From a public health perspective, we support and are working with many partners in the treatment, recovery, advocacy space. As always, education has to work hand in hand with things like research, policy studies and community engagement.