VIth Sense: Can a Healthy Dose of Marketing Stop the Opioid Epidemic?

Author: Tim Berney
Posted: Aug 2, 2019

Topics: The VIth Sense

The most important question surrounding Oklahoma’s lawsuit against Johnson and Johnson is not who is at fault. That obviously matters, but we can’t allow finger-pointing to distract us from the most pressing problem. Too many lives are at stake. As marketers, how can we help reduce opioid abuse in Oklahoma and at the national level?


What is the Answer?
At first glance, the obvious solution is urging doctors to prescribe opioids less often, which is certainly part of the equation. In the language of behavior change, we say “make them less available.” Or we can continue to make them more expensive, like we’ve successfully done with tobacco taxes. But it isn’t that simple.

Harm reduction is key, and this is where behavior change marketing comes in clutch. As marketers, we can help curb opioid abuse by educating the public, influencing public opinion and transforming social norms.

If you’re over 40, you probably remember crawling around your parent’s car without the faintest thought of a seatbelt. But through extensive public education and policy change, wearing a seatbelt gradually became a social norm. Similarly, most states have banned indoor smoking in public places. We’re also making headway with texting and driving, drinking and driving and HIV testing. What most of us consider to be “normal behavior” often begins with new public policy.

Moving Forward
So how do we get there? Behavior change marketers understand the fundamental steps that society must take for a new behavior to become the norm. The J&J lawsuit has brought more attention and momentum to the devastating opioid crisis, and we can harness that attention to our advantage. It will take extensive public education to shift attitudes and behaviors. But with proper funding and the right message, it’s well within our reach.

Due to the complexity of addiction and pain management, the solution will never be simple. But the earlier the intervention and shift in social norms, the higher our chances of success. Since these drugs are prescribed by trusted doctors, many people aren’t comfortable questioning whether they are risky, or even necessary. They think, “My doctor told me to take these, so they must be safe.” But this often isn’t the case. By educating doctors, patients and the general public about the risks, we empower them to make better choices — while they still have a choice. We embolden them to ask important questions like, “Are these addictive? Can you prescribe something else?” We equip them with the knowledge and tools they need to advocate for themselves.

If they are prescribed opioids, we teach them how to dispose of their extra medication responsibly so it doesn’t fall into the wrong hands. We educate them on what to do if they suspect someone they love might be addicted or has overdosed. We dial down the stigma and shame but double up on the awareness and prevention.

A Worthy Investment
This work isn’t quick, cheap, or easy, but it’s worthwhile. It took billions of dollars to get where we are today with seatbelt education — both in donated and paid advertising. Billions have been spent on tobacco control as well. Oklahoma has invested nearly $100 million to move from #47 to #38 in smoking prevalence and to drop below 20% usage for the first time in state history. The momentum started when the master settlement agreement was reached in 1998. Hopefully, the current lawsuit will provide funds for similar public education efforts regarding opioids. If not, that doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t be able to change the social norms and behaviors of our state (and entire society). It might just take longer.

It’s still “normal” to prescribe and consume painkillers without fully considering the risks. We have a tough road ahead of us, but public perception is slowly shifting. The art and science of behavior change marketing can play an integral role in solving the opioid epidemic. Combining public education, behavior change marketing and meaningful advocacy? It might just be our prescription for success.

Read more about behavior change marketing here. 

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