Monday, December 13, 2010

Openly gay NYC councilman, GMHC, GLAAD ask for removal of HIV prevention ads targeting gay men

Clip taken from a segment shown to NY1 viewers in Queens on Dec. 13, 2010 (Additional info: "New Health Department Initiative Facing Opposition").

If you've lived in NYC over the last few years, particularly if you are a smoker, you are probably highly aware of a series of increasingly graphic print and television campaigns the New York City Department of Health developed to discourage people from smoking and encourage smokers to quit.

In its first incarnation, you saw "Ronaldo Martinez" speak to the camera and talk about getting a cancerous growth removed from his throat and taking his ability to speak away without the help of a machine (surprisingly, I haven't been able to find the televised version of the ad anywhere except in a different version apparently appropriated by an anti-smoking agency in Australia of all places).

I'm not a cigarette smoker but that specific ad seemed to have a punch to it. Sure, I changed the channel every time it came on, but you could certainly understand the ad's plausibility when it comes to long-term cigarette smoking.

The ads made an immediate impact, specially among friends who smoked.  They called NYC's #311 help line and ordered the expensive smoking-cessation kits that the Department of Health offered on a limited basis.

Researchers called the campaign a "huge success", at least in its early stages.  But it's not clear to me whether they took into account that the Department of Health was initially offering access to nicotine patches for free nor the fact that the city was increasing taxes on cigarettes

Not that I'm complaining. As an infrequent cigar smoker, I can say that one of better legacies of the Bloomberg administration is having barred smoking in bars.  And, apparently, some statewide programs still offer free nicotine patch or gum "starter kits" (click here).

But then came the other ads. The ones that said that smoking would make you lose your fingers (I kid you not). Or give you brain tumors. Or promote cavities. And I personally thought they'd gone off their rocker and gone punch-happy on negative messaging. Truthfully, the more graphic and preposterous it got, the less effective I felt the campaign was.

They even tried to replicate the scare tactics - laughably some may say - with campaigns to stem consumption of sugary drinks and the way they make people fatter. Gross, yes. Effective? Eh...

Which brings us to...

I've long been a critic of the public health policies developed by the New York City Department of Health under the Bloomberg administration and their reliance on scare tactics. And yet, I am inclined to like this ad. Why?

Well, it's certainly graphic and gross. But it speaks to the potentially horrible side-effects of being HIV positive. Does it say that everyone with HIV will develop these symptoms? No. But the ad does strongly imply that people with HIV are at a higher risk of being at risk of these illnesses - which I believe does act as a forceful HIV-prevention message.

Now, call me when the NYC Department of Health starts running messages saying that people with HIV are more prone to cut off their fingers as a scare tactic but, if memory serves me well, just a couple of years ago HIV prevention advocates were bemoaning that HIV prevention messages portrayed people with HIV as being all happy-happy and ultra-healthy when the reality of living with HIV wasn't nearly as cheerful.

Interestingly, a few of Michael Bloomberg's most vociferous critics seem to be backing this campaign while a number of advocates and organizations are calling for the Department of Health to pull the ads.

As the leading video attests, openly gay New York City Councilmember Danny Dromm is asking for the ads to be removed immediately as does the  South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association (SALGA).

Tonight, they've been joined by the Gay Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD) and the Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC) which released this statement. An excerpt:
Gay Men's Health Crisis (GMHC), the nation's oldest HIV/AIDS prevention, care and advocacy provider, today joined the Gay & Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), the nation's leading lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) media advocacy and anti-defamation organization, to demand that the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene pull a sensationalistic and stigmatizing television public service announcement aimed at gay and bisexual men.

The PSA, which is intended to encourage condom usage among gay and bisexual men, claims that those with HIV face a higher risk of bone loss, dementia, and anal cancer.  While older adults living with HIV may be at greater risk of these conditions, the PSA creates a grim picture of what it is like to live with HIV that could further stigmatize HIV/AIDS, as well as gay and bisexual men.

"We know from our longstanding HIV prevention work that portraying gay and bisexual men as dispensing diseases is counterproductive,"  said Marjorie Hill, PhD, GMHC's Chief Executive Officer.  "Studies have shown that using scare tactics is not effective.  Including gay men's input, while recognizing their strength and resiliency, in the creation of HIV prevention education is effective.  Gay men are part of the prevention solution, not the problem."

Both GLAAD and GMHC have reached out to the department to demand that the commercial be pulled and to offer assistance with framing the conversation around HIV/AIDS more accurately.

"While it's extremely important that we continue to educate New Yorkers about HIV/AIDS prevention, the sensationalized nature of the commercial, including its tabloid-like fear tactics, misses the mark in fairly and accurately representing what it's like to live with HIV/AIDS," said GLAAD President Jarrett Barrios. "It's our hope that the department will work with us to create a PSA that promotes safety and solutions, rather than stigma and stereotype."
The funny thing (as funny things go when discussing these issues) is that one of the top Bloomberg administration critics when it comes to HIV prevention seems to  be bending over-backwards not to say a bad thing about this.

Housing Works doesn't take sides at all but provides all the links to anyone wishing to defend the Bloomberg administration's side of things.

And that, my friends, is truly as bizarre as it gets.  As for the ad... do you think it's effective? Do you think it sucks?  I am inclined to like it but haven't yet made up my mind. What are your thoughts?

Update: Via my friend Michael Petrelis, Larry Kramer chimes in:
to the nyc dept of health:

thank you. it's about time. this ad is honest and true and scary, all of which it should be. hiv is scary and all attempts to curtail it via lily-livered nicey-nicey "prevention" tactics have failed. dr hill knows this and her remarks below, once again, show her to be living on another planet. and since when is GLAAD in the hiv-prevention business? god help us if it is. gmhc is bad enough.

can we finally get real here? we are in the 32nd year, more or less, of a plague.


these are appalling statistics.

And dr hill and some dude at glaad is telling me that prevention efforts, as they are presently constituted, are working.

of course people have to get scared. i have said this since day one and i say it today. they need to be scared into using condoms. into getting tested, into being responsible human beings. nothing so far has been able to bring a sufficient result to these requirements. why can't anyone see that? why can't our oldest aids organization see that? to say as dr hill does below that "studies have shown that using scare tactics is not effective" is, i believe, an out and out lie. i have never seen such research. if it exists, then it is as irresponsible as dr. hill and mr/s glaad.

i see a lot of doctors regularly during the course of looking after my own health. every single one of them is telling me that they are seeing more and more young and usually white men who are educated and should know better, sero-converting.

and with all the hoopla over hiv negative people taking this new once-a-day truvada "miracle cure" just so they can have sex without a condom, is going to be a nightmare of the highest order. i firmly believe this.

just as i firmly believe that NO prevention efforts can be rendered with the sugar coating it has been receiving since 1981.

i congratulate the nyc board of health for finally getting real. i look forward to even more and scarier public service announcements.

larry kramer
Michael actually does not like the ad.  For his comments, go over to his blog.



NG said...

Every PSA tends to be somewhat sensationalistic and or outrageous, and most often wrong.

Perhaps Councilmember Dromm would like to explain why he never took action until now.

By the way, I have the shower, swimming, and baseball PSA featuring Martinez, just in case.

libhom said...

I agree with Larry Kramer on this one. HIV is scary. People are too complacent about safer sex. Denial isn't helping.

The ad should also point out that the HIV medicines sometimes stop working for some people.

This is an example of what an utterly useless organization GLAAD is these days. If GLAAD was still a grassroots group, they would be doing action alerts demanding that TV stations run the ads.