That the market for ‘legal highs’, or more accurately, new psychoactive substances (NPS) has grown there is no doubt. What’s also growing, in terms of sophistication and technique, is the marketing of these products.
With NPS, things are changing so fast that the research is well behind what’s happening in real time. Business is way ahead of science. Legal high marketing is cutting edge stuff.
The branding of NPS and techniques used in marketing are the subject of a new study. According to Eurobarometer, five countries account for almost three quarters of NPS users:
- UK (23%)
- Poland (17%)
- France (14%)
- Germany (12%)
- Spain (8%)
So, how are these drugs being marketed and how much will marketing affect consumption and problem drug use?
What was the aim?
To review and summarize some aspects of the strategies adopted by online NPSs retailers – namely:
(1) the appearance of the products
(2) the brand names
(3) the latest trends in the illicit online marketplaces
What did they do?
A literature search and ‘extensive and regular monitoring’ of the internet (websites, FaceBook, Twitter, chat rooms, newsgroups, online shops etc.) The Global Public Health Network was also used. This is an early warning system funded by WHO and delivered by Canada’s Public Health Agency.
What did they find?
What’s in them
- Retailers present NPS as safer alternatives to ‘traditional’ drugs
- Risks are minimised and the substance is often not labelled on the packaging
- Products are often labelled as ‘something else’ e.g. bath salts, herbal mixture distracting from the fact they are drugs
- Legality is equated with safety
Packaging and presentation
- Sold in brightly coloured packages designed to appeal to ‘vulnerable consumers, mainly adolescents and young adults.’
- Pills can be imprinted with designer trademarks and often contain amphetamines
- Powders most often contain synthetic cathinones like mephedrone
This study included the most comprehensive analysis of NPS brand names to date, looking at over 1000 of them. Common problems seen with this kind of analysis include the fact that brand names change often, a brand may contain different drugs in different countries and that over time, different drugs may be branded by different names. In this analysis, 650 substances were branded in 1074 ways.
- Brand names are not particularly aligned to the drug, more chosen to attract customers
- The risks are apparently minimised by choosing familiar and recognisable names, sometimes from comics.
Head shops make these drugs available on the high street, but the internet ‘plays a crucial role in the distribution of these products.’ The authors explain:
“This has become a highly profitable business, as it provides a number of advantages, including vast pools of customers, swift and easy operational management, and anonymity, while overcoming national and international legislations.”
The kinds of profits available are alarming. The paper gives the example of the now shut-down Silk Road website:
“It has been estimated that approximately 220 distinct categories of illicit drugs were sold on this website (Hout & Bingham 2013 ). These were able to generate annual sales worth $22 million (£14.5million), Forbes has reported (Greenberg 2012 ).”
The researchers found that the largest businesses were those offering performance and image enhancing drugs (PIED) such as anabolic steroids, sex-enhancing substances, cognitive enhancers, weight loss drugs etc. Some of these are prescription only drugs, so they are sold on online pharmacies, but without a prescription. Buyers are unaware that drugs from such sources may be untested or contain illicit substances.
What does the paper conclude?
The field is changing rapidly and although the web is a tool to market NPS it may also offer opportunities to reduce harm and educate users. Ironically the paper was out of date as soon as it was published. It shows a snapshot of the situation at the end of 2013.
“It is suggested that monitoring activities should be continued; that more countries, languages, resources, researchers, and health professionals should be involved; and that the findings should be widely shared with public health agencies and health professionals for responding to such a prominent challenge. Large-scale clinical studies are also warranted to confirm and better describe the extent of the NPSs phenomenon and to develop effective strategies to clinically address it.”
Reflections on legal high marketing
Given that the businessmen are concluding their day’s work before the scientists have generally got out of bed, at least as far as the evolution of NPS goes, going to the internet to see what’s happening was a good move and I think the idea of having a more structured approach to monitoring is a good one. I was surprised that the authors did not tackle the, admittedly thorny, problem of legislation around marketing. There are no other products so potentially harmful that have so few restrictions around advertising.
I’ve written before about the unique and unexplored territory we are in with regard to marketing of NPS. We have no idea of how lack of legislation will play out in terms of sales, problem use, addiction and crime. We have products designed for human consumption that are marked ‘not for human consumption’. Marketing tricks and deceptions are in play to ensure effective uptake to potentially vulnerable groups. Advice on how to use the substances with the least harm is not coming at the point of sale, but from organisations like Crew 2000 and the Scottish Drugs Forum – often distantly via the internet. Though, in truth, the evidence suggests that users get most of their information from peers.
It feels as if we are not only a few steps behind the NPS marketing people here, but somewhere beyond the orbit of Pluto and urgent action is needed to close the gap.
Corazza, O., Valeriani, G., Bersani, F., Corkery, J., Martinotti, G., Bersani, G., & Schifano, F. (2014). “Spice,” “Kryptonite,” “Black Mamba”: An Overview of Brand Names and Marketing Strategies of Novel Psychoactive Substances on the Web Journal of Psychoactive Drugs, 46 (4), 287-294 DOI: 10.1080/02791072.2014.944291