Health Canada cannabis education program rolls out the fun and games

The chance to climb a rock wall and dangle from a wire may be part of the government of Canada’s newest campaign to educate young people about the health risks of marijuana.

Health Canada is bringing cannabis “interactive activity zones” to music festivals, fairs, sporting events and other celebrations across the country starting next month. Possible locations include Canada Day in Ottawa, the Pacific National Exhibition in Vancouver, the Tremblant International Blues Festival and the Buskers Festival in Halifax, according to Health Canada.

The $5.1-million travelling program could include rock climbing, a digital graffiti wall and digital technology that shows how cannabis affects the brain, says Health Canada. Photographs in a Health Canada document that illustrate what types of activities are planned show a young man rock climbing, another playing with a bright digital screen, and a person in a harness suspended from a wire attached to what appears to be a giant yo-yo.

How will cannabis education be woven into all the fun and games? “Ambassadors” at the activity centres will chat with young people and, in the words of the government document, “help them make positive and healthy lifestyle choices that will help them achieve their goals and improve their well-being.”

The novel approach reflects emerging ideas about drug education.

Public-health educators are grappling with the best way to connect with Canada’s young people, who are among the world’s most avid pot smokers. Traditional anti-drug campaigns that rely on fear, a dry recitation of facts or lecturing don’t tend to be effective.

A promising new approach takes a positive spin: promoting healthy lifestyles, attaining goals and learning ways to manage stress. In one recent survey commissioned by Health Canada, 40 per cent of teenagers aged 13 to 18 said one of the reasons they used cannabis was to relieve stress and anxiety.

The travelling activity show is being created by Inventa, a Vancouver marketing agency that won a bid to create two national “experiential” campaigns for youths aged 13 to 17 and for those 18 to 24.  The tender document says the campaigns could also include a “game, contest or other evidence-based activities to encourage young people to attend the events and participate in the program” and enlist the help of social media celebrities, bloggers or other “relevant influencers.” The campaign will be promoted on “communications channels that are popular and that appeal to youth.” Hello, social media.

The key messages to be delivered are set out in the tender document: “Like alcohol, cannabis is not without risks. Choose a positive lifestyle to reach your full potential. The younger cannabis use starts and the more it is used, the higher the health risks. Know the health and safety risks of cannabis.”

Officials at Inventa refused to comment, referring questions to Health Canada, which provided a summary. Marketing campaigns created by Inventa include an event for Nintendo Switch, a Coca-Cola Olympic torch relay and a Wii U launch tour, according to the company website.

It’s encouraging that the government hired a firm with experience staging events for young people, said David Hammond, a professor of public health at the University of Waterloo. “Lots of our health communications are embarrassing. They look like they are designed by old people in government.”

A wide variety of cannabis education measures are needed, he said. Some may be more successful than others but over time “understanding will bubble up. As long as the messages are on harm reduction and are credible, people will tend to embrace them.

“I think they are trying to meet kids where they are at. Even at the best of times, it’s hard for the government and public health authorities to be cool and hip. But look, it’s worth a crack.”

Perhaps Canadian officials were inspired by youth education campaigns in U.S. states that have legalized cannabis.

Colorado has coupled wide-ranging fact-based campaigns with ads that deliver the message that underage pot use can “get in the way of what matters to you.”

One ad for the state’s “Protect What’s Next” campaign, for instance, features people biking, running and doing woodwork. “Discover it. Do it. Share it,” says the ad. “Big or small, your goals matter. Don’t let marijuana get in the way.”

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