Thursday, June 23, 2011

Graphic cigarette labels ... really?

Take a look at these:

Pretty pictures of new warnings that will be included on cigarette packs per 2009 legislation.

Now, take a look at any of the following:
Ineffectiveness of fear appeals in youth
How to use fear appeals
Fear appeals in traffic safety

When a person believes that he is not vulnerable to a risk, his behaviour will not be affected by information about the serious consequences and the recommendations for effective behaviour.
In other words ... now, stay with me ... fear appeals are largely ineffective, especially among younger populations. In simple terms, this is because young people don't understand how to effectively estimate risk. This is the root of the common "it won't happen to me" phenomenon, and the reason that many teenagers are drawn to risky behavior. Their brains are quite literally unable to process the seriousness of the danger inherent in many behaviors and situations.

Also, we've tried stuff like this before, when the tobacco companies were required to advertise to prevent youngsters from initiating smoking: Evaluation of youth response to tobacco-company sponsored messages.
Not surprisingly, these companies crafted their messages to appeal to adults who needed a warm, fuzzy feeling ... but the teen smoking rate increased. That's right, the public health ads that were supposed to prevent kids from smoking actually prompted more young people to light up. Brilliant!

What makes us think, then, that young people won't just discount these messages, ridiculing them in a defensive response? My prediction is that is exactly what's going to happen. These messages will be, at best (in younger populations), completely ineffective because they're mocked by kids for being entirely too graphic.

Even more importantly, sometimes fear appeals such as these can have an iatrogenic effect; that is, the intervention worsens the problem. Fear appeals provoke a defensive mechanism that prompts target audiences to engage in dangerous behavior simply to prove that they're immune to the behavior's negative health effects. In other words, people might start smoking more as a proverbial "middle finger" to the public health campaign. "See, I can do it, and I won't die!" ... or, they'll rationalize their behavior by pointing to anecdata that supports their behavior. Ex: "My grandpa smoked a pack a day for 80 years, and he lived forever."

Anyway, way to go, FDA, for being completely unoriginal and refusing to acknowledge the massive body of research that indicates the complete worthlessness of fear appeals. This legislation passed because we have a bunch of uneducated, self-righteous politicians who want to make themselves feel better because they're doing something. Well, they did something before, involving the tobacco companies, and they succeeded in making the problem worse instead of lowering smoking rates among our nation's youth.

Only time will tell whether this intervention will follow the same path.

ETA: Does anyone else think this is going to cause an increase in the sales of cigarette cases? I would rather have my smokes in a stylish vintage box instead of one of these horrifying boxes. People really can circumvent any intervention.

UPDATE: Check out this awesome editorial, which proves my point --- Smokers unmoved by graphic ads

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