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T'worth man just says no to drug survey

Scott Finman says interviewer ignored his "no trespassing" sign

June 03, 2010
TAMWORTH — A Tamworth man said an interviewer doing prep work for a federal drug-use survey ignored the no trespassing signs posted in front of his driveway. Resident Scott Finman said he objects to the invasion of his privacy and the apparent violation of the state's trespassing law RSA 635:2.

Finman said an employee from Research Triangle Institute named David Paige came to his Tamworth home on May 26, for the stated purpose of creating an inventory of homes in the area as preliminary work for the National Survey on Drug Use and Health (NSDUH).

RTI is an independent nonprofit research institute based North Carolina. It has had the contract to with the U.S. government to do survey since 1988. Their current contract will continue through next year.

Finman said Paige told him he'd seen the no trespassing signs posted near the driveway, but said his supervisors told him to ignore those types of signs. Paige arrived in what appeared to be a personal vehicle, but he did have and RTI badge.

"At least the Census guy called ahead," said Finman who described the tone of the encounter as civil. Finman also spoke with Paige's direct supervisor about his issues. The woman acknowledged the complaint and ended the conversation quickly.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) funds the survey, which was authorized by section 505 of the Public Health Service Act. The NSDUH will question about 70,000 randomly selected people over the age of 12, about their use of illegal drugs, tobacco, and alcohol. In total, the survey costs approximately $45 million. Survey organizers said they wanted to hear from all types of people including those who don't use drugs, alcohol, or tobacco.

SAMHSA's the Director of the Division of Population Survey, Joe Gfroerer, said interviewers aren't supposed to ignore no trespassing signs. He said the interviewer that approached Finman would be given more training. Gfroerer's office is in Rockville, Maryland.

"That's not the way the survey is supposed to be done," said Gfroerer. "They are trained to respect privacy… We try to make sure they don't cross the line."

However, Gfroerer said the interviewers are "persistent" and will sometimes contact potential interview subjects more than one time to try and convince them to take the survey.

But to Finman the survey is just "creepy."

"I hesitate to take a Tylenol and I have never taken a drink, but that's none of their business," said Finman who said Paige also wanted details about his home such as what kind it is and how many acres of frontage it included. "And one has to wonder why the federal government thinks it needs such a thorough and vast knowledge of everyone and their homes."

But Gfroerer said policy makers such as Presidents and Congressmen use information from this survey to allocate resources and to adjust policies. This survey has been conducted in every state since 1999. In New Hampshire, about 900 people are randomly selected to participate. The survey has nothing to do with the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, he said. ARRA is better known as the stimulus package.

Gfroerer described how the surveys are distributed. Individual interviewers are given small segments of a town to survey — perhaps containing 150 or so addresses. Once the segment is inventoried, letters are randomly sent to a fraction of the homes within the segment. The letters ask the residents if they would like to participate. Then, an interviewer will come to the person's home to ask demographic questions about the inhabitants such as age, race, and sex.

At a later date, those chosen for the survey are presented a laptop computer into which they will enter their answers. Surveys are done in the residents' homes.

Interviewers will not see the answers the participants have written. The survey will take about an hour to complete. Answers are kept confidential and cannot be used for anything besides statistical analysis, according to NSDUH's Web site nsduhweb.rti.org.

In fact, a surveyor could be jailed for five years and fined $250,000 if he or she leaked personal information about particular people. Confidentiality laws prohibit those involved in the drug survey from using the U.S. Census's mailing list. Also, the U.S. Census is done every 10 years and survey is done annually. So, most years the U.S. Census data would be outdated, said Gfroerer. In the future SAMHSA will likely use U.S. Postal Service mailing lists as a way to save money.

"If an individual is selected for the interview, their participation is voluntary, but no other person can take their place," states NSDUH 's Web site. "Since the survey is based on a random sample, each selected person represents more than 4,500 United States residents. At the end of the completed interview, the selected person receives $30 in cash."

This means just over $2 million is being spent on reward money alone.

Over the years, the survey and the methods involved in it have been honed in order to encourage honest answers. Survey results tend to be a bit conservative because there is some underreporting, but the results are still useful, said Gfroerer.

A spokeswoman for U.S. Rep. Carrol Shea-Porter said Shea-Porter is aware of the survey. He referred specific questions to SAMHSA.

Still, Finman doubts whether the survey is really a worthwhile endeavor.

"I'm afraid to know how much they spent," said Finman.

Martin Lord Osman
Martin Lord & Osman
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