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You may want to think twice before sharing drug overdose photos

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It was a well-intentioned attempt to show the disturbing effects of drug addiction, a common strategy among law enforcement agencies.

Officials in East Liverpool, Ohio, released photos of a couple slumped over in the driver and passenger seats of a car, pale and unconscious from a heroin overdose. Their son sits in the back seat, face visible for the world to see.


The images spread through the Internet, inspiring a Wisconsin woman to share a similar scene with a local television station. Video taken on the woman’s cell phone shows a couple passed out in a car from a drug overdose with a toddler in the back seat. Another clip follows of them lying on a grassy sidewalk as Milwaukee firefighters revive them.

There’s no doubt the images are disturbing. But can any good come from sharing them?

On balance, probably not, according to public health experts, prevention specialists and ethicists. Fear may grab the public’s attention, but privacy concerns matter, too, as well as what science says about the effectiveness of such strategies.

Little evidence suggests that using shame or fear is an effective deterrent to drug addiction, which, by definition, is a chronic brain disease characterized by compulsive drug use “despite harmful consequences,” such as arrests, heart attacks, or loss of family support.

If anything, it may have the opposite effect, especially for those depicted, experts say.

Here are some reasons why graphic images showing the harsh reality of drug addiction may do more harm than good, and what can be done instead:

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