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Treating meth addicts like lepers for fun and profit

February 22, 2016
Barbie after three months, one year and five years on crystal meth.

A well-known kids’ doll time-lapsing on crystal meth, according to “Your Face on Meth”.

Rehabs.com’s “Your Face on Meth” allows anyone to upload a jpg image of someone’s face and almost instantly see a supposed simulation of how a crystal methamphetamine addiction would ravage that person’s looks in five time increments over a five year period.

This rather crass feature begins with a windy justification:

“The goal of this project is to demonstrate dramatically the immense toll that drugs like Meth can have on one’s appearance and the seriousness of addiction. This extreme physical deterioration is often representative of further destruction taking place within an addict’s personal, family and social life.

Use these representative images to remind yourself and your loved one(s) of just how bad things can become, and know that drug abuse is an absolutely serious matter. The physical transformation that prolonged drug abuse can cause is just the tip of the iceberg, merely an immediate and dramatic representation of the life-altering destruction that addiction can create.”

If that isn’t enough to prove Rehab.com’s pure intentions, it’s followed by a multiple choice questionnaire that poses what I believe a lawyer would call leading questions, such as:

  1. Does seeing the physical effects of severe drug addiction make you feel more or less compassion for these addicts?
  2. Does seeing the physical effects of severe drug addiction make you less likely to abuse drugs?

Then it’s on to the “fun”. The website prompts the user to either upload an image from their harddrive or to take a photo using their computer’s webcam.

using-your-face-on-meth-02

Chosen images load quickly and the user is presented with an original version of their image on the left side of the screen, over which they are asked to position movable orientation markers—on the eyes, nose and mouth and around the face.

On the right hand side of the screen is a version of the image showing the real-time results of  dragging around the markers, with five versions to choose from: “3 months”, “6 months”, “12 months” and “5 years”.

Clicking “Next” runs up a nice little postcard of all five views, which you can download and, I dunno, ponder over.

It certainly made me think.

Selling private drug treatment one scare at a time

Jesus H. Christ! But he looks terrible!

Christ! He looks terrible, doesn’t he?

The first thing I thought was “wow, this is hokey”. Then, after I’d run a few faces through, I thought that none of them looked anything like the long-time meth users that I know. This made me wonder. Canadians sometimes get  lighter and sweeter versions of U.S. food products, like Crystal Pepsi—might the same be true of our crystal methamphetamine?

Mostly, however, I was left scratching my head and asking what the hell it was about?

Turns out that, sanctimonious justifications aside, it’s all about the high-pressure marketing of private U.S. drug treatment clinics.

Rehabs.com isn’t itself in the business of addiction treatment. It’s in the business of steering addicts toward private addiction treatment options in the U.S. How it exactly makes money doing this is a bit vague.

The ownership of the Rehabs.com domain appears to be hidden behind a proxy but the domain has been identified as one of several owned and operated by a 2012 startup called Recovery Brands, which has a business model built around promoting private drug treatment in general and specifically connecting addicted consumers to the private treatment centre that’s right for them.

Recovery Brands was sued in 2014 for allegedly steering consumers away from one treatment centre and toward another. The suit was dismissed in 2015 but the practices it alleged are said to be common in the marketing of addiction treatment.

Recovery Brands frequent strategy of shrouding its identity behind fictitious groups and various web domains—including one formerly used by a U.S. government-sponsored National Youth Anti-Drug Media Campaign—is arguably deceptive. While a feature like “Your Face on Meth” is a very hard-nosed tactic.

By painting drug addicts, for all to see, as the 21st century’s lepers and pariahs, Recovery Brands is leveraging fear to motivate drug addicts to open their wallets wide and choose private treatment.

I think it’s dehumanizing and ugly but Recovery Brands’ sharp business tactics are apparently mild when compared to the amount of outright deception and trickery commonly used to market U.S. addiction recovery centres.

In 2013, a psychologist followed up a suspicious email that looked, at first glance, like unbiased addiction treatment information from the U.S. government but turned out to be advertising for a private treatment clinic. The information was disguised using a “dot net” address that closely spoofed the well-known domain of a federal agency.

The psychologist characterized a good deal of the unsolicited offers received from treatment and rehab centres as increasingly “subtle and duplicitous”.

Disaster capitalism at work

You can tell a lot about the current state of free market thinking by the fallacies that it embraces.

At the end the 19th century and into the beginning of the 20th century Darwinian Natural Selection was twisted around to create a spurious “Survival of the Fittest” justification for monopoly capitalism. While since the 1960s, neoliberal free marketeers have tellingly been fond of  pointing to the Chinese word for “crisis” and rather simplistically saying that it’s composed of two character that respectively mean “danger” and “opportunity”.

And so it is that south of the border, social problems are seen through a free market lens as business opportunities, first and foremost. Crime and punishment, homelessness and housing, drug addiction and treatment—all growth industries.

If you came up with an instant cure to do away with both harmful street drugs and the resulting life-sucking addictions they cause, I’m sure that Americans would not only beat a hasty path to your door, they would also stick you in a sack weighted down with lead shot and dump you in the nearest deep body of water. Really, I believe they would!

Putting aside the whole lucrative business of getting people hooked on drugs in the first place, let’s just say that the drug trade in all its forms–both legal and illegal–is creating huge opportunities for addiction treatment.

Consider that in the United States, drug, alcohol, and other addiction treatment was estimated in 2014, to be a USD$35 billion industry, with at least 14,000 private sector addiction treatment facilities treating 2.5 million Americans a year, at an average cost, in 2011, if $25,166 per person.

The majority of programs offered by U.S. addiction treatment clinics appear to of the short, 30-day variety and there appears to be no empirical evidence that they work, so far as curing addictions is concerned.

Some experts cite as a “success” figure, that 30 percent of people that go through rehab abstain for a year. While according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 40 to 60 percent of people relapse after such drug treatment. Reports of people repeatedly failing treatment are common.

Treating a thing is so much more lucrative than actually curing it.

Rehab.com’s “Your Face on Meth” may be inspired by the scary amount of publicity garnered two years ago by the Bradley County Sheriff’s Office in Tennessee, USA, which, on August 8, 2014, included an edited image of Kim Kardashian as a meth addict, in a “scared straight” gallery on the department’s website.

Apparently though, it wasn’t the kind of publicity that the Sheriff’s Office was looking for because the gallery was yanked after only a few hours. Click the images to enlarge them.

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3 Comments
  1. Sandra permalink

    Using a picture of a Barbie doll and one of Jesus to demonstrate the ravages of drug use is bizarre! As if Jesus being crucified was not enough. These marketing people are unscrupulous. Weirdness has just reached another level.

    “Health care” as a whole is a cash cow. Big Pharma (I call this sector the evil empire) for instance exists and ratchets up obscene profits year after year solely because it is a “sickness” industry.Drug manufacturers are not in the business of making people well, as that would put them out of business. Conspiracy theory? No. As someone who has spent countless hours on the internet researching cancer treatments, the hard truth is more than evident.

    Thanks for your great post!

    Sandra

    • I agree with you 100 percent that sickness is treated as an industry. The over-prescription of opioids in the U.S. and Canada is scandalous. This leads directly to a great deal of long-term addiction and creates more potential clients for addiction treatment, I’m going to check to see how many U.S.-based rehab clinics have expanded into Canada.

      To be clear, I chose Barbie and Jesus, in an attempt to jar senses and show just how absurd and divorced from reality the whole idea was.

  2. Oilybird permalink

    Yes sickness is an industry unfortunately and always has been.

    It would be interesting to look at how many radical discoveries in drug discovery have been made by private industry and how much has been funded by charity and government.

    A lot of drug discovery nowadays by private companies involves tweaking existing treatments rather than sinking money into the difficult business of getting new and radical discoveries approved and this is mainly because companies investing in medicine need to get returns on their investments and given the long investment times and the short time that companies can profit from their inventions due to patenting restrictions. This is combined with the fact that you can actually put a price on life for example people suffering from many illnesses are willing to raise money for huge amounts to save a loved ones life. This is what makes drugs such an incredibly attractive proposition for many investors.

    However they do get cures to market and manufactured. Many drugs involve many complex stages in production and every step needs testing. To produce many pharmaceutical compounds can take as many as 30 steps to produce just 1 kg and this can mean a drug can take 30 months to produce which is what racks up the expense and whether charity and government can find the money to do the same thing as well as invest in drug trials is an important question.

    Also how well policed are drug trials and do they give the benefits that they are supposed to have.

    Do drug companies actually make up illnesses that don’t really need to be cured and what can stop them doing it?

    Whether they need constraining on the profits they make and whether there needs to be an awareness of both the needs of industry to make a profit and the limitations of the public sector is a debate that should continue.

    Maybe we need a shift in how we do things. I know that the majority of scientists that work in drug discovery do it because they genuinely get excited by the fact that they may just may make a discovery that could cure an illness and the science that they use is cutting edge.

    Having said that I am not a big fan of the current rush to commercialize cannabis. I have seen the damage that skunk can cause to young minds and like alcohol and medicine when people can make huge profits they forget their ethics. This is why capitalism needs controls.

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