Yesterday Nicola Roxon launched “the next stage of the Federal Government’s hard-hitting $17 million advertising campaign to combat illicit drug use in Australia”, aimed at teenagers and young adults.  This stage is aimed at ecstasy, ice and marijuana.

To back up the campaign, Roxon cited some statistics:

In 2007 more than one third of the people aged over 14 had used an illicit drug at least once in their lifetime.

The proportion of recent regular ecstasy users who use weekly or more often has risen from 0.8 per cent in 1998 to 17.3 per cent in 2007. There is also a disturbing trend in the increased ecstasy use by young females aged between 14-19 which is up from 4.7 per cent in 2004 to 6 per cent in 2007.

“In recent years, the use of ecstasy has been increasing,” the campaign’s background material says.

The idea of rising drug use among young people suits the media, which is always ready to peddle the idea of out-of-control teens.  There are “armies of binge-drinking teens”, illicit drug use is always “rife” and kids are on the slippery slope from “pot and booze” to “hard drugs”.

The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, from whose data Roxon’s staff cherry-picked some statistics, says something quite different.

According to the institute’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey from 2007, community “recent drug use” had fallen across virtually all categories of drugs, including alcohol and tobacco.  And the institute’s full report showed illicit drug use had fallen significantly (as in, statistically significantly) among teenage boys to its lowest level ever — less than half of what it was in the 1990s, and also dropped markedly among teenage girls.

In fact, the only age group showing steady or rising illicit drug use were over-50s and retirees.

Of the three drugs targeted by Roxon yesterday, recent marijuana use has fallen by statistically significant amounts, most dramatically among teens and people in their 20s.  It’s now half of what it was in the 1990s.  Recent meth-amphetamine use had collapsed among teens, with statistically significant falls to 1.0% for males and 2.2% for females.  Older age groups were flat or rising.  Ecstasy use was flat among teenage boys — but down from its 2004 peak, and did rise among girls (the figure Roxon cherry-picked).  But there were also big rises among people in their thirties and older.

The AIHW report had also concluded that patterns of alcohol consumption across all age groups had remained broadly the same since 2004, but that was forgotten in Kevin Rudd’s war on binge drinking two years ago.  As was the evidence that high-risk alcohol consumption was a greater problem among every age group other than teens, right up to 60-year-olds.

The new campaign will primarily be delivered via radio and print media.  They happen to be the two media that teens use least.  An ACMA study in 2007 found children and teens listened on average to radio for 13 minutes a day.  They’re also far less likely to read newspapers and other print media than older adults, according to overseas studies.

On the other hand, radio and print media will be where older media users — people who vote — will encounter the ads.

That may not be a bad thing, because despite again targeting young people, the evidence shows that its drug use by older Australians that we need to be concerned about.