New wave of opioid-related advertisements tries to end stigma, misses the point

Photo by Analyn Cuarto

Photo by Analyn Cuarto

Drug users are more than just their worth to other members of society

By Jacey Gibb, Distribution Manager


1,422. That’s how many people died last year in British Columbia from a drug-related overdose, and despite the declaration of a public health emergency in 2016, hundreds of people have continued to die.

According to the BC Coroners Service, “illicit drug overdose deaths” have been on the rise since 2012, though last year saw the highest jump, towering over 2016’s final count of 995 deaths.

Suffice it to say, advertisements meant to combat the opioid crisis have been widely ineffective. Some posters attempted to deter drug use in general by highlighting associated risks, while others promoted the life-saving drug Naloxone and the importance of never using drugs alone.

Considering the previous attempts to address overdose-related deaths in British Columbia, I’m both appreciative—and critical—of the latest opioid-centred advertising campaign: A joint venture between the Ministry of Mental Health and Addictions and the Vancouver Canucks meant to tackle the stigma around drug use.

You may have already seen the posters around bus stops or SkyTrain stations. Advertisements featuring different people beside a list of their various roles in society. One poster featuring a young woman says “Cousin, Student, Drug User, Friend.” Another, featuring a middle-aged man, says “Co-worker, Teammate, Drug User, Hockey Fan.”

According to the Minister of Mental Health and Addictions Judy Darcy, stigma around drug users is “killing people.” Darcy also said that drug use is usually related to pain or trauma, which can isolate users rather than encouraging them to seek out support from friends or family.

It’s honestly a welcome shift from previous advertisements focusing on the opioid crisis. Last year, the Vancouver Police Foundation funded transit posters of a corpses’ feet with the word “Fentanyl” in big orange letters above it. Multiple Naloxone-related posters have focused on preventing overdoses and how they can save lives. However, neither type of poster tried to address the underlying relationship between drug use and addiction.

Critics of the opioid crisis often reduce drug users to being lesser citizens. The mentality that someone who uses drugs deserves whatever happens to them is both horrifying and wildly naïve. Yes, some drugs are illegal in Canada, but does someone partaking in an illegal substance void their right to live? If you shoplift, or go 10 km over the speed limit, or lie on your taxes, do you immediately forfeit your right to life as well? Of course not.

The same people who argue that drug users deserve whatever happens to them are the same group that this new stigma-based campaign are talking to. It’s a reminder that, “Hey, drug users are human beings too,” which some people conveniently forget whenever they down-talk substance-users.

Where the new campaign falters, though. is their emphasis on a person’s worth to others instead of their existence simply as an individual. Yes, someone can be a drug user while also being a cousin, student, and friend, but they’re also their own person. You could be someone who lives in a remote corner of the world, with no friends or family, and who hasn’t spoken to another human in decades, and you’d still be a 100 per cent certified human frickin’ being.

The value of our relationship to others is one way to remind people that drug users are individuals themselves, but I don’t feel like this advertising does enough.

However, if the sheer volume of overdose-related deaths in the last few years isn’t enough to earn empathy from the general population, I don’t know what will.


The Other Press

The Other Press, Douglas College's student newspaper since 1976. Articles, insight and updates from the New West and Coquitlam campuses.

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