In-your-face photos aim to scare teens straight by striking their vanity
By Linda Carroll / msnbc.com contributor
With disturbing before and after photos of drug users’ faces, a new anti-drug campaign may succeed where others have failed, grabbing teens’ attentions by appealing to their vanity.
The pairs of mug shots, which graphically display the damage drugs can do to the face, were collected by the sheriff’s office in Multnomah County, Ore.
Faces that were normal — even attractive — in initial photos, shot when addicts were first arrested, metamorphose over years, and sometimes just months, into gaunt, pitted, even toothless wrecks.
The photos are part of a 48-minute documentary called “From Drugs to Mugs,” created by Deputy Bret King. King hopes that the documentary, which is available on a DVD along with a CD of mug shots, will help scare kids straight by showing them concrete evidence of damage that can occur within months from using meth, heroin or cocaine.
“The thinking is that this will give kids a tangible image of what can happen if they get involved in using hard drugs,” King says. “We did want to appeal to their sense of vanity.”
King understands the power of that teen vanity. “I remember in high school you had to have the right clothes, the right shoes, the right look,” he says.
Perhaps the most stunning feature of the photos is how quickly the face is damaged.
That speed isn’t surprising to addiction experts.
Meth, for example, can cause small blood vessels around the face to constrict, says A. Thomas McLellan, director of the Center for Substance Abuse Solutions at the University of Pennsylvania.
“So consequently, the gums shrink as they do in old age,” says McLellan, also former deputy director of the United States Office of National Drug Control Policy. “The teeth that remain can become discolored and black.”
Both meth and heroin are often cut with sugar, McLellan explains. “And you get acne from oily or sweet things, so if you’re injecting the sugar into your veins it’s even more direct,” he adds.
Other impurities can cause lumpy cysts on the face and other areas of the body, such as the armpits and groin, McLellan says.
The gaunt look on many of the addicts can be the result of poor nutrition and lack of sleep , says Dr. Larissa Mooney, an addiction psychiatrist and an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Los Angeles.
As for the facial sores: Sometimes meth users will hallucinate and get the sensation that there are bugs crawling under their skin, Mooney says. Trying to get relief, they’ll sometimes pick at their skin until there are open sores.
Experts can’t say whether the program will work, but Mooney and McLellan are hopeful.
“The video is trying to tap into something that is important to young people,” Mooney says. “It’s less abstract than telling someone they’ll get lung cancer many years down the line. This is something you can actually see right now.”
McLellan agrees that the short time to facial devastation may have a big impact on kids. “Some of these photos show changes in less than six months,” he says. “This is the kind of time frame kids understand.”