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Heroin and the Media

Early Sensationalism

From the beginning, the media did not hesitate to play up the dangers of heroin. In the late 1890s and early years of the twentieth century, there was a national hysteria over opium dens run by Chinese immigrants. Although many Americans were addicted to non-prescription medicines containing morphine and heroin, opium addiction was branded a “Chinese vice” threatening to subvert society.

One of the early opponents of heroin, Richmond Pearson Hobson, exploited the media's tendency toward sensationalism, publicizing his views in lectures laced with questionable facts and statistics. He started out as an advocate of prohibition, the banning of alcohol. “Ninety-five percent of all acts and crimes of violence are committed by drunkards,” he declared, as quoted in Julian Durlacher's Heroin. Prohibition failed, and by 1928, he had changed his focus: “Most of the daylight robberies, daring hold-ups, cruel murders, and similar crimes of violence are now known to be committed chiefly by drug addicts.” Hobson helped convince Americans that heroin use was causing a national crisis.

Hobson also argued that “drug addiction is more communicable [easily spread] and less curable than leprosy.” This view still held sway in 1956, when heroin was made illegal by the passage of the Narcotic Control Act. Senator Price Daniel was one of the first supporters of the act. During the hearings, he repeated Hobson's quote about heroin and suggested that for incurable addicts, “it is just as humane to put them in some kind of colony.”

Heroin Chic

During the 1990s, the heroin chic trend briefly became popular in the fashion world. Stick-thin models in magazine spreads stared out dully at the reader with hollow, dark-rimmed eyes. A notorious ad campaign for a Calvin Klein fragrance featured emaciated models contorted into bizarre positions. The heroin chic look was widely criticized. The main concern with the popularization of heroin chic was how the trend glamorized the physical effects of heroin abuse.

Initially, the problem was with the models' appearance, not with actual alleged heroin use by models. It gradually became known, however, that a number of models had crossed over to heroin use. In 1997, twenty-year-old photographer Davide Sorrenti, one of the pioneers of the heroin chic look, was found dead of a heroin overdose. Public outcry and censure within the fashion industry ended the popularity of the heroin chic trend.

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Science EncyclopediaCommon Street DrugsHeroin and the Media - Early Sensationalism, Heroin Chic, Celebrities In The Spotlight