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How Can Social Marketing Help Reduce Fentanyl Overdose Deaths?

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Nancy R. Lee
October 9, 2023

Imagine a world where citizens eagerly adopt behaviors that public sector managers advocate for to improve public health, prevent injuries, protect the environment and engage communities. This is a world that Social Marketing can help you create. This is my fourth column highlighting Social Marketing, a proven discipline to influence behaviors for social good.

This column will illustrate a social marketing approach to reducing fentanyl overdose deaths.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, available as a prescription drug for pain relief. The following informed the need for this monthly column. The National Institute on Drug Abuse reports that:

  • More than 175 people in the United States die every day from an opioid overdose, mainly from illicitly manufactured and sold fentanyl.
  • The majority of opioid-related deaths involves illicitly manufactured fentanyl.

And the CDC reports that in 2021 the rate of overdoses involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl is on the rise, with recommendations for “what can be done” including:

  • Expand distribution and use of naloxone.
  • Intervene early with individuals at highest risk for overdose.

Three social marketing strategies presented in this column focus on these recommendations.

Have and Know How To Use Naloxone

This example is a brief summary of a social marketing campaign in 2023 of the Washington State Department of Health, with a behavior objective to influence more citizens to have, carry and know how to use naloxone.

Audience research provided important insights regarding barriers to action, as well as desired benefits. In addition to lack of awareness regarding how and where to access naloxone, research revealed that stigma was a large force that would need to be addressed, with some people judging and looking down upon people with opioid abuse. And among people who use opioids, self-stigma was experienced, with some having feelings of shame and low self-worth. The desired benefit for all was the chance to save a life.

A campaign was produced by C+C, a communications agency, with major elements including paid media and a website to educate audiences about how to recognize signs of an overdose and how to use naloxone. Messages and campaign materials were designed to be non-judgmental, compassionate and straightforward. Importantly, given concerns with how to access and pay for naloxone, the campaign promoted the state’s free mail order naloxone program in 13 Washington counties with the highest overdose rates. The campaign was created in English and Spanish.

In terms of outcomes, 3,240 people in the targeted counties ordered the free naloxone during the campaign period, a 98 percent increase. In addition, there was a 14 percent increase in statewide naloxone awareness and more than 100K unique visitors to the campaign website.

Only Use Fentanyl Pills From a Pharmacy

Facts from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) that confirm the importance of only using prescription Fentanyl pills obtained at a pharmacy include:

  • In 2022, more than half (60 percent) of fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills being trafficked in communities across the country contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.
  • Cartels in Mexico, using chemicals largely sourced from China, are primarily responsible for fentanyl trafficked in communities across the United States.

The DEA’s website One Pill provides resources for accessing materials to promote the “One Pill Can Kill Campaign”, offering a toolbox with materials for the media, parents, teachers, educators and community organizations to raise concern about counterfeit prescriptions, including videos of teens sharing concerning stories and facts, and persuasive messages: “Never trust your own eyes to determine if a pill is legitimate. The only safe medications are ones prescribed by a trusted medical professional and dispensed by a licensed pharmacist.” 

A second example of an effort focused on prescription-only opioids was made by Better World Advertising—a group which has been creating social marketing campaigns for 27 years, and believe social marketing is a limitless force for helping people create a stronger, healthier society. One of their overdose-focused campaigns running in Ohio, branded EXPECT FENTANYL, is raising awareness about how fentanyl has permeated the illicit drug supply. The campaign is aimed at both opioid users and non-opioid recreational drug users. Fake pills, that are supposed to be Xanax or Adderall or Percocet are increasingly being laced with fentanyl, causing completely unexpected overdose deaths mostly among young people. The message being “If you didn’t get it from a pharmacy, it probably has Fentanyl in it.”

Increase Community Awareness & Concern

Events in communities that engage adults and teens to learn more about the risks of fentanyl can be one of the most successful channels for influencing protective behaviors. In October of 2023, a Community Forum on Mercer Island, Washington, attracted an estimated 150 parents, community members and youth to an event organized by the City’s Youth & Family Services and Police Department. Presentations highlighted the difference that parents can make by talking early and often to their children about drugs. One motivational speaker was a parent who had lost her daughter to a fentanyl overdose, encouraging parents to be alert to the danger, and frequency, of teens purchasing fake fentanyl pills online.

Author: Nancy Lee is a Teaching Associate at the University of Washington where she teaches social marketing in the MPA program. She has coauthored 13 books, 11 with Philip Kotler. She has a small consulting firm in Seattle, Social Marketing Services, has consulted on more than 100 social marketing campaigns, and has conducted workshops on Social Marketing in 12 countries

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