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A little boy's freckled face peers out of the poster in black and white. Beneath it, the caption reads: "America's drug problem is not as big as you think."

It's worse, according to officials.Thursday, the Salt Lake Police Department, Neighborhood Action Coalition and advertising firm Williams and Rockwood joined the Partnership for a Drug-Free Utah to kick off a public-service campaign targeting drug abuse prevention.

In recent years, emphasis has been on enforcement of anti-drug laws; now they want to work on reducing demand for illegal drugs by educating the public.

Crime is the No. 1 issue in the city, state and nation, said Salt Lake Mayor Deedee Corradini - particularly youth violence. And drugs and violence are at the heart of youth crime. "Unless we aggressively deal with the drug issue, we are going to continue to deal with crime," she said.

Calling illegal drugs a "menace," Salt Lake Police Chief Reuben Ortega said he hasn't changed his mind about the need for strict sentencing for dealers. "Put the purveyors of death behind bars." But massive enforcement and interdiction efforts haven't changed the number of people using drugs. Demand is what drives drug production and sales.

He said locking up all the hard-core addicts who steal or commit other crimes to support their habits won't eradicate drug use. Too much is purchased by working people for recreational purposes. And the number grows each year.

"I think we are on the verge of seeing a new era in drug usage," he said. "It will be as bad or worse than we saw 10 years ago."

"We need to denormalize drugs . . . so it's not a rite of passage," said Lynn Durrant, director of the Neighborhood Action Coalition. "It's a health issue."

She said anti-drug messages a decade ago lead to a decline in usage, but that has reversed again. "We have a short attention span."

But prevention efforts have not done well. It's like the child, she said, that everyone praises and no one wants to adopt.

A study conducted by Johns Hopkins University found that advertising and public-information anti-drug campaigns are very effective if done well, said Leslie Bloom, regional director of the the partnership organization. Of surveyed students who remembered one of the partnership's campaigns, 75 percent said the ads caused them to stop, decrease drug use or never start using them.

The new ad campaign, which includes radio, television and newspaper spots, contains more than a dozen messages, ranging from a cartoon animal confessing, "I've done some dopey things, but I'll never do dope" to a gymnast's routine with a voice-over that says: "Last night Lisa got higher than she's ever been - and the only thing she took was first place."