Hello, fellow historico-medico aficionados, this is Kevin for another installment of CEPI Curiosities, our monthly look back at the interesting and unusual from the annals of medical history. Today I am in the unenviable position of having to follow up our series of guest writers: students from the Karabots Junior Fellows Program who put together pieces examining the differences between venom and poison, the story of Chang and Eng Bunker, Harry Eastlack’s battle with FOP (fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva), and Chevalier Jackson and his eclectic collection of swallowed objects. At the very least, I will do my absolute best to maintain the high standards they set.
Recently, the College of Physicians of Philadelphia’s Section on Public Health and Preventive Medicine has focused on smoking as a significant public health issue for 2016. On September 26, the College held a discussion by Alan Blum, MD, who addressed what he viewed as anti-tobacco activists’ failures to counter tobacco use. Yesterday the College hosted a Public Health Grand Rounds event on the role of tobacco retailers and advertisers and how their methods undermine smokers’ attempts to quit. Just last week, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced plans to crack down on retailers’ exposure of tobacco products to children. In the spirit of these discussions, this edition of CEPI Curiosities is going to address a related campaign–drug addiction–and a highly publicized but very unusual attempt to warn kids about the effects of drugs. Allow me introduce you–or if you’re a child of the eighties/nineties like myself, reintroduce you–to Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue.
Allow me contextualize what you have just watched (or, again for my contemporaries, what you have possibly been repressing in the deepest recesses of your mind for the better part of a quarter century). During the 1980s, there began an active media campaign to warn American children about the dangers of drugs as part of the larger “War on Drugs,” a national campaign to combat the proliferation of drugs. These attempts took on a variety of forms. One of the the most famous spokespersons of this movement was First Lady Nancy Reagan with her “Just Say No” campaign, but there were numerous others. In the early 1980s, Los Angeles Police Department Chief Daryl Gates helped establish the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) Program, wherein police officers visited schools to teach lessons about drugs and how to resist peer pressure. D.A.R.E. eventually expanded to schools nationwide. Beginning in 1989, arcade enthusiasts discovered coin-operated video games bore a title card from William S. Sessions, then head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, informing players “Winners Don’t Use Drugs.” Television shows devoted “very special episodes” to the issue of drugs; one of the more famous (or infamous depending on your point of view) was the November 3, 1990, Saved by the Bell episode “Jessie’s Song,” in which the character Jessie Spanno grapples with an addiction to caffeine pills (the show followed with another anti-drug episode a year later with the November 30, 1991, anti-marijuana PSA “No Hope with Dope“). PSAs addressed the effects of drugs including the now-iconic “This is Your Brain on Drugs” and Paul Reubens’ (TV’s Pee-wee Herman of Pee-wee’s Playhouse and several films) segment on crack cocaine.
However, nothing out of the anti-drug youth media campaign was quite as epic in scale as Cartoon All Stars to the Rescue. When it first aired on April 21, 1990, the half-hour special was a television event; it ran simultaneously on all four major television networks–ABC, NBC, CBS, and FOX–as well as on several cable channels. The show was a veritable “Who’s Who” of popular Saturday morning cartoon characters, including Michelangelo from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Alvin and the Chipmunks, Winnie the Pooh, Garfield, the ghost Slimer from Slimer and the Real Ghostbusters, the animated version of ALF (yes, ALF had his own animated series because pretty much every licensed property got one in the 80s and early 90s), the Muppet Babies, and the Loony Tunes. The special opened with a message from then-President George H.W. Bush and First Lady Barbara Bush informing youngsters of the hazards of narcotics before segueing into the feature presentation: a morality play about the effects of drugs.
The story follows Michael, a teenager who is addicted to marijuana who even resorts to raiding his little sister’s piggy bank to fuel his habit. Along the way, he also falls into a rough crowd who attempt to pressure him into harder drugs such as crack cocaine. His addiction prompts characters in several toys and posters in his sister’s room to come to life to halt his behavior. What follows is effectively a thirty-minute “tough love” intervention wherein the various characters show him the effects of drugs on his brain (via a psychedelic roller coaster ride with the baby versions of Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy) and his drug-addled future as effectively a desiccated, sunken-eyed husk. In between these segments characters take turns expressing the sentiment of anti-drug slogans at the time (“There’s nothing cool about a fool on drugs,” Kermit intones; “Why don’t you just say no,” Huey from Ducktales offers). All the while “Mr. Smoke,” a aptly-named sentient smoke cloud voiced by none other than George C. Scott, attempts to keep him on his current drug-induced path. Eventually Michael comes around and swears off drugs, and Mr. Smoke is defeated by being cast out a window. The characters’ task completed, they return to the various licensed products from whence they came.
Many of these anti-drug attempts of the time, Cartoon All-Stars to the Rescue included, were equal parts well-intentioned and ineffectual. Despite once having a presence in nearly 75% of America’s schools, there is little evidence to suggest the D.A.R.E. Program had any effect on children’s choice to abstain from drugs (in fact some have argued it had the opposite effect). There’s no data to suggest any correlation between a person’s drug use (or lack thereof) and exposure to Former FBI Director William Sessions’ slogan on arcade games. Moreover, Cartoon All-Stars and other anti-drug messages’ viewpoint of drug addiction as a personal failing (“Users are losers and losers are users” went one McGruff the Crime Dog PSA; another declared “No one says, ‘I want to be a junkie when I grow up‘”) has given way to the view of drug addiction as a disease, with the addict as a victim in need of sympathy and care. The message of marijuana as a “gateway drug” has also been largely disproven by scientists. In the light of current approaches to drug treatment, many of the methods employed by the Cartoon All-Stars seem antiquated at best and potentially harmful at worst.
In fact, critics have accused the campaign of having an effect worse than what it attempted to prevent. The greater War on Drugs, of which these elements were a part, led to increased criminal penalties for drug-related offenses which led to a significant increase in the American prison population; the crackdown on drugs disproportionately affected minority groups.
Until next time, catch you on the strange side!