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How a Policy of Abstinence Shaped Irish Drug Health Information Material in the 1980s And 1990s

Updated: Jul 24, 2023

Festival Season is upon us, and the Health Service Executive (HSE) in Ireland recently launched a new drug campaign targeted at festival-goers. The design and imagery of the Reduce the Harms at Festivals campaign takes a playful approach. Borrowing heavily from 1970s animation, the campaign features images of anthropomorphized objects and colourful cartoons; a smiling first aid kit high-fives a heart in platform shoes patched up with a plaster (‘Medics are your Mates’); a snail in festival style staples – bum bag and bucket hat (‘Start Low and Go Slow’).

Health Service Executive, Medics Are Your Mates, 2022

Health Service Executive, Start Low & Go Slow, 2022

The cartoonish and light-hearted depictions in the HSE’s Reduce the Harms at Festivals campaign are in stark contrast to the type of imagery featured in Irish health promotion material produced in recent history. At the end of the 1970s there was a flood of heroin into Western Europe, the 1980s then saw a sharp rise in heroin use and a crisis in some of the most disadvantaged areas in Dublin.

Health pamphlets and posters from the 1980s and 1990s often featured gritty urban scenes and ‘shady’ characters, and used sensationalised language and imagery that was popular in media reporting at the time – invoking fear to try to dissuade young people from using illegal drugs.

Drugs Kill is a 28 page booklet produced by the Ashbourne Foróige Club in 1987.

The front cover features a photograph of a suburban street at night. A group of five teenagers surround a man (likely the dealer) who stands in silhouette, leaning against a lamppost in a dramatic backlight. The dealer is unrecognisable as his face is in darkness, shaded against the dramatic backlight; he is a visual quintessence of a ‘shady character’.

Ashbourne Foróige Club, Drugs Kill, c. 1987

All of the teenagers’ identities are obscured by black marks covering their eyes. The concealment of the young people’s identities can perhaps be considered as something of a judgement of their behaviour, a message of shame and stigma relating to drug use. Obscuring of faces by a black mark was also a method often used to protect bystanders’ identities in CCTV footage broadcasts. This appears to align with the popularisation of crime media journalism in Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The rise in drug use (particularly heroin), anti-social behaviour, and gang-related crime piqued public and media interest in the 1980s and early 1990s and such issues were reported on in great detail with previously unseen frequency. Dramatic portrayals of Irish criminals and increased coverage in both volume and frequency in the media in general contributed to a heightened awareness of crime in the Irish consciousness during this time.

Health Promotion Unit, Understanding Drugs (4th edition), interior, 1992

Similarly, it was in this media climate that the 32 page booklet Understanding Drugs was produced in 1992 by the Health Promotion Unit. Inside, the booklet contains a combination of photographic images, text, and illustrations executed in a comic book style. A street scene of a drug deal is also used in this booklet, to demonstrate exposure to drugs through friends and peer pressure. A girl stands on the edge of the group observing three young men as they buy drugs from a dealer. The group is surrounded by scattered beer cans and on one of them crouches and smokes.

Health Promotion Unit, Understanding Drugs (4th edition), interior, 1992

A tone of sensationalism is again seen on the following page of Understanding Drugs; an illustration of a series of newspapers showing sensational headlines such as ‘Drugs Ring Smashed’ and ‘Massive Drugs Haul’ plays on media reporting of the drug trade and the popularisation of crime journalism.

While the HSE’s new Reduce the Harms at Festivals campaign is visually different to what has come before, so too is the message. The new HSE campaign applies a ‘harm reduction’ approach to drug taking at festivals; the user is advised on safer practices when using drugs. While the overarching message is to avoid illegal drugs completely, it is acknowledged on the campaign website that ‘drug use takes place across nightlife and festival settings and we want to raise awareness of the current risks and encourage people to reduce the harms’. This includes information about dosage and pacing of drug taking, and about new types of drugs on the market, advice to stick with friends and to present promptly for medical attention in an emergency.

Irish health authorities have not always advocated for a harm reduction approach to illegal drugs – for most of the late 20th century drug policy was predominantly based on abstinence. In response to the heroin crisis of the 1980s, government action focused on legislative changes to tackle supply of drugs, however services for users and health education policies failed to address the situation pragmatically, and continued only to promote total abstinence at this time. Ireland did not begin using harm reduction methods around illegal drugs until 1992. Even then, these strategies were focused on intravenous drug use only, and did not appear to filter into health promotion material dealing with recreational drug use or ‘softer’ drugs.

Increased production of anti-drug posters and pamphlets under bodies such as the Health Education Bureau and later, the Health Promotion Unit, indicate an impetus to take action on the matter. However the tone struck by this material was often disparate to the reality of the situation, particularly in relation to the creation of dramatic visual narratives and the evocation of fear as a deterrent. These representations likely served to disaffect those who the material was intended to help.

Health Promotion Unit, Understanding Drugs (4th edition), interior, 1992

While both Drugs Kill and Understanding Drugs feature dramatized portrayals of drug purchase and use, the substances themselves appear to be treated with broad brushstrokes in terms of categorisation. In both booklets each type of drug is given an equal level of detail and the same visual treatment – ‘Drugs All About Us’ –  an approach which extends to caffeine, alcohol, marijuana, opiates, etc. This visual treatment appears to equate tea and coffee with heroin, likely detracting from the credibility of the material, particularly with the intended teenage audience. 

Ashbourne Foróige Club, Drugs Kill, interior, c. 1987

This one-size fits all view of vastly differing classes of substances and stimulants in anti-drug material demonstrates a lack of understanding of the different types of drug use and the context in which each occurs. It can be surmised that a policy of abstinence at government level meant that the practices and cultures around different types of drugs were not acknowledged in the 1980s and early 1990s, and that pragmatic advice was not given.

This shortcoming was discussed at a political level; in a Dáil debate from 1995, the Green Party’s Trevor Sargent outlined that ‘if the information about the harmful effects of drugs is widespread, it is not getting through. It is clear that young people are bombarded with propaganda that one drug is the same as the other and that everything is a drug’.

Health Promotion Unit, XTC: Ecstasy, c. 1995

A shift in the style of government drug material is then evident in the mid-1990s. Produced by the Health Promotion Unit circa 1995, XTC: Ecstasy is a small folded pamphlet rendered in full colour throughout. There appears to be substantial consideration behind the design of this pamphlet. Visually, it is quite clear that this example attempts to recreate the visual tropes of dance music and the rave scene of the early 1990s. The production of this pamphlet is likely a reaction to the increasing use of ecstasy which went hand in hand with dance music at the time, and an effort to appeal to and gain the attention of young people involved in the scene. The use of the slang term ‘XTC’ on the cover also supports this observation, as does the many phrases for ecstasy described within the body of the text:  ‘E’, XTC, Edward, Essence, Love Doves, Disco Biscuits’.

Previous to the publication of the XTC pamphlet, all types of illegal drugs were referred to in more general terms – simply ‘drugs’- within single a publication. This pamphlet is one of the first instances of health authorities focusing in on one specific drug. Appropriating the visual subculture of the dance music scene (the context in which ecstasy was typically taken) can be seen as an effort to identify with young people who were likely to take this drug.

While this pamphlet indicates an effort to understand the contexts and sub-cultures in which drug-taking occurs, it is lacking any type of practical advice which characterises a harm-reduction approach.

Whether evoking fear in dramatic narratives, or categorising Class A drugs alongside coffee, Irish drug material from the second half of the 20th century has often fallen short of the mark owing to our abstemious ideology which shaped drug policy. Reduce the Harms signals a new approach by Irish health authorities; the campaign encompasses both practical harm reduction advice (contained in the booklet) and also involves the presence of outreach teams at major festivals who can provide support to festival-goers who may be in drug-related distress. The design and imagery of the new campaign also marks a departure from anti-drug material of the 1980s and early 1990s; playful illustrations of snails and hearts are a far cry from the shady street scenes and dramatic headlines seen in previous material. Whether this approach will be successful is yet to be seen, but it is refreshing to see efforts being made to address drug taking in a practical way -and importantly- attempts to measure the effectiveness of these strategies.

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