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War on the drug culture;Drug abuse

Ever more companies are putting aside fears about the unwholesome image of drugs abuse and injecting money and time into tackling the problem. They see it as their social responsibility. Mark Whitehead reports.

Companies are backing drugs education in a big way. Walk into a record or clothes shop around London and the chances are you can pick up a copy of Guest List, a snappy guide to the dance club scene which includes some no-nonsense information on the dangers of illegal drugs.

Last year the high street video chain Blockbuster ran a campaign on drugs. HMV mounted a drug awareness campaign with posters and in-store videos and distributed 100,000 compact discs. Glaxo Wellcome, the pharmaceutical giant, has given pound;123,000 to local anti-drugs projects ranging from a publicity campaign on "dance drugs" in Leeds clubs to a drive against crack cocaine among the Turkish community of north London.

These are just a few examples of the ways private sector companies are involved in the drive to alert the public, especially young people, to the dangers of drug abuse. Working alongside government agencies such as the Health Education Authority and the Standing Conference on Drug Abuse, they are offering their facilities, marketing expertise, staff time and cash to help get the message across.

The Government, which recently launched a 10-year anti-drugs campaign, led by Co-ordinator Keith Hellawell and Home Secretary Jack Straw, recognises the role of the private sector in the White Paper Tackling Drugs to Build a Better Britain. Many businesses, it says, now recognise the commercial benefits and "ethical imperatives" of this kind of work.

Commercial companies used to stay clear of the unwholesome image of drug abuse. When the Health Education Authority launched its national awards three years ago, only a handful of companies chose to be involved. Now at least 30 companies support the authority's work. There has been a change of thinking. Children as young as five are being targeted in an attempt to make them aware of the dangers.

"It's such a big problem and it affects everyone," says James Graham, head of education services at McDonalds, which has backed projects including a training programme for school governors, working with the Metropolitan Police producing an information pack for young people, and a campaign with Crimestoppers. "A large part of our customer base is children and they will hear about drugs. We have a responsibility to help them understand the issues they will be faced with."

Ruth Seabrook, charitable contributions manager at Glaxo Wellcome, says the company also sees funding drugs education progammes as socially responsible. "It fits in with our role as a good corporate citizen, as part of a much wider approach looking at such things as environmental standards and how you employ people. It's about playing a proper part in the community."

Almost half of under-25s in the UK have used illegal substances, according to government figures. At least half of all recorded crime is in some way connected with drug use. There are between 100,000 and 200,000 addicts in the UK, costing more than pound;4 billion a year to support, and the number of drug-related deaths has risen to more than 1,800 annually. The drug trade is now worth an estimated 8 per cent of total international trade - pound;400 billion a year - the same as the oil, gas or world tourism industries.

For companies, getting involved in drugs education is not just a question of social responsibility, it also makes good business sense. "There's a growing awareness of the impact that drug abuse has on communities," says Hilary Maxfield, who is preparing a guide for employers as part of Business in the Community's Partnership Against Drugs programme. "If young people are underachieving or not involved in the economic system at all, it will affect profits.

"Companies often have good local knowledge, which can be useful in drugs education projects, or they can offer staff time. There are all sorts of ways they can help."

A survey of 300 young people by the Health Education Authority two years ago found that 77 per cent said they would think better of companies if they were involved in drugs education. They thought cinemas and video shops, record shops, fast food outlets and clothes shops would be good outlets for information.

A change of philosophy towards the prevention of drugs abuse came with the launch of the Tackling Drugs Together campaign in 1995. Health educators, politicians and the police increasingly realised that the negative, admonitory approach of campaigns in the 1980s, such as Just Say No, simply did not work. Young people were not responding to warnings that all drugs are deadly. Their own experience and street-lore told them otherwise. Nor did they accept bald instructions as to what they should do and not do.

A more educational approach was adopted which aimed to explain the dangers of drugs without exaggeration and authoritarian posturing. Geof Webb, of the Health Education Authority, says: "Young people are going to take drugs whatever we say. Our main aim is to try to persuade them not to take drugs, but we have to accept that some are going to experiment. What we can do is advise them on the pros and cons and how they can do it more safely."

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