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New prescription for opioid crisis: Hard-hitting ads that 'nail' the desperation

The Truth Initiative says its jarring ads will tackle the opioid crisis the way it targeted big tobacco.

A construction worker deliberately slams a door on his arm. Another young man grabs a hammer, takes three breaths, and brings it down on his hand. A young woman aims her car at wall of trash bins, unbuckles her seat belt — and hits the gas.

That is the gist of three powerful TV commercials produced by the Truth Initiative that were unveiled Thursday on "Today" and aim to do to the deadly opioid epidemic what the group’s earlier ads did to the scourge of tobacco — scare people away from trying them in the first place.

“They are powerful. They are honest. They are a little raw,” Robin Koval told NBC’s Cynthia McFadden.

And, she added, they’re true descriptions of the lengths people addicted to opioids have gone to in order to get new painkiller prescriptions.

“They’re not just random stories of young people, peer to peer, telling stories to other young people about what can happen with casual recreational use, or taking a prescription and not really understanding that dependency can happen in as little as five days,” Koval said.

When McFadden noted that most Americans will see them for the first time “while eating their cornflakes,” Koval said the group won’t apologize for ruining their breakfasts.

“The first thing we have to do in an education program is get people’s attention,” she said. “The average attention span now is eight seconds. So, you know, we have to get young people to pay attention to these.”

The Truth Initiative, which is collaborating with the Ad Council and the Office of National Drug Control Policy on “The Truth About Opioids” campaign, builds on their ongoing anti-smoking campaigns that also featuring riveting ads to drive their message home.

The new anti-opioid commercials comes as more than 100 Americans are dying every day of fatal drug overdoses, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — and may remind some of the jarring CDC ads which featured former smokers revealing how their bodies were ravaged by their addiction.

Koval said they crafted their ads after doing more than 5,000 interviews, mostly with young people, over the past year. She said those surveyed are aware there is a crisis.

“I mean, you have to be on Pluto not to know that,” she said. “And then you’ll ask them, ‘Do you know that Vicodin or OxyContin is an opioid?’ And they’ll go, ‘No, I didn’t know that.’ There’s a big knowledge gap we’re trying to fill here.”

The White House hailed the new campaign as “another critical step in the Trump administration’s effort to combat drug demand and the opioid crisis.”

“My baby brother Phillips is in prison due to crimes he committed to support his addiction.”

Surgeon General Jerome Adams

Surgeon General Jerome Adams told McFadden the ad of the hammer-wielding young man resonated with him. He said his brother Phillip got hooked on drugs the same way — by popping opioid pills at a party.

“My baby brother Phillip is in prison due to crimes he committed to support his addiction,” Adams said.

Trump declared the opioid crisis a national emergency last August and appointed a commission headed by then-Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey to come up with solutions. But Trump was also accused of paying only lip service to the plague and pushed Republican-backed Obamacare proposals that would have drastically cut Medicaid funds for opioid addiction treatment.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Jeff Sessions resorted to an old school get-tough approach with drug dealers and even resurrected a slogan from Ronald Reagan’s 1980s war on drugs — the widely mocked and largely ineffective Nancy Reagan mantra of “Just say no.”

Asked by McFadden about the perception that the White House had not responded forcefully enough to deal with this problem, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway said “that’s unfortunate.”

“I would tell those critics and naysayers to please educate themselves and come on board,” she said. “Learn how you can help because … we can use everyone’s assistance here. I would say this crisis did not happen overnight, and we will not solve it overnight.”

Adams said campaigns like this drove down smoking rates and he believes they can do the same with opioids.

“We know it can be done,” he said. “And we’re going to do it with opioids.”