Nancy Reagan, whose “Just Say No” campaign became a landmark anti-drug mantra, died from congestive heart failure in her home on Sunday at the age of 94.
The campaign began when the first lady met with schoolchildren in Oakland, California. “Mrs. Reagan,” one of them asked, “what do you do if somebody offers you drugs?” The first lady replied, “Just say no.” This interaction was the inspiration for Reagan’s campaign and lead to the creation of over 12,000 “Just Say No” clubs in schools across the nation.
Reagan’s campaign efforts included visitations to rehab hospitals, lectures in schools and authoring articles. She appeared on talk shows, television programs, and had the opportunity to guest host “Good Morning America” in 1983.
The campaign inspired drug-centric episodes of popular television shows such as “Punky Brewster.” In an effort to raise national support, she made appearances as herself in episodes of “Diff’rent Strokes” and “Dynasty.” In 1985 she released a “Just Say No” public service announcement on television and hosted a two-hour special about drugs on PBS.
“Just Say No” spread to Australia with the drug-related death of Anna Wood, a student in Sydney, Australia. After Wood’s death, her mother released a school photo of Wood with the phrase “Just say no to drugs” included.
This lead to the inclusion of the campaign on Australian and British television and news shows. In 1985, Reagan invited the first ladies of nations from around the world to the First Ladies Conference on Drug Abuse.
In 1998, Nancy Reagan became the first first lady invited to address the United Nations General Assembly. Her speech stated the United States needed to increase its efforts to prevent drug abuse in young people and stop blaming the nations that produced the drugs.
“We will not get anywhere if we place a heavier burden of action on foreign governments than on America’s own mayors, judges and legislators,” she said. “The cocaine cartel does not begin in Medellin, Colombia. It begins in the streets of New York, Miami, Los Angeles and every American city where crack is bought and sold.”
During her husband’s time as president, the nation saw a decline in illicit drug use. High school use of marijuana dropped from 50.1 percent in 1798 to as low as 12 percent in 1991. Psychedelic drug use decreased from 11 to six percent. Cocaine use went down from 12 to 10 percent, and heroin use fell below one percent.
“Just Say No” helped build national awareness of drug abuse and lead to the creation of the National Crusade for a Drug Free America. This anti-drug act took a zero-tolerance approach to drug dealing and inspired the Drug Abuse Resistance Education (D.A.R.E.) program of the 80s and 90s. D.A.R.E. continued the “abstinence only” approach to drug use and used local police officers to teach elementary school kids about drugs.
Reagan’s opponents criticized her message for being too simplistic and unrealistic. “My experience is ‘Just Say No’ wasn’t terribly effective,” said Dr. Herbert Kleber, director emeritus of the Columbia University Division on Substance Abuse. “But it was better than not doing it.”
Penn State University professor Michael Hecht agrees. “Effective resistance strategies go beyond repeating simplistic slogans at kids,” he says. “Instead, researchers in the field realized a couple of decades ago that we needed to give kids a variety of skills to resist peer pressure.”
Common opposition states an abstinence-only approach isn’t realistic, and messages delivered from teachers and celebrities aren’t as effective as those delivered from a child’s peers.
Nancy Reagan continued paving new ground for first ladies as women of action. Her efforts to lead a public awareness campaign weren’t new. Previous first ladies Betty Ford and Rosalynn Carter lead public health campaigns, but Nancy Reagan’s influence uniquely caught the attention of those outside the political spectrum.
Former president of the Just Say No Foundation, Ivy Cohen, said “Without Nancy Reagan, there would not have been the public climate to support drug abuse prevention.”