No Matter How Graphic The Images, Fear Based Messages Will Continue To Be Ineffective For Prevention

All over the news in the past week, we have seen samples of the new graphic images being proposed for addition to cigarette packages. They include corpses and people dying of cancer. However, just because these images and warnings are larger and more graphic, does not mean that they will be effective in smoking prevention.

A story ran today on called "Will graphic cigarette warnings help- or hurt?" Two experts in tobacco prevention are quoted regarding their concerns about the new images. Gregory Connelly of the Harvard School of Public Health points to the results coming from Canada after using similar images. Smokers there simply purchased sleeves to cover up the images on their cigarette packs. Also, the smoking rate did not go down. The second expert is a wonderful professor of mine from the Boston University School of Public Health, Dr. Michael Siegel. Dr. Siegel writes regularly regarding this topic on his blog, "The Rest of the Story: Tobacco Analysis and Commentary". In the article, he states "I do not actually think it's going to have much of an impact". His argument- the images are too late. The smokers are seeing the images after they have already purchased cigarettes. And (drum roll please....) people already know smoking is bad for them.

As someone who grew up during the "This is your brain. This is your brain on drugs. Any questions?" era...I wonder why we have not made much progress since then? Numerous studies have shown that scare tactics (or fear appeals) are not effective for preventing or producing sustained reductions of Alcohol, Tobacco, or other Drug use among youth. In addition to the issues outlined above, there is another problem with the fear based approach:

Although the fear based messages may increase knowledge (e.g., if they did not know it already, smokers will learn that cigarettes are bad for them from the graphic images)- knowledge does not equal behavior change. Especially when you are dealing with an addictive behavior. Addictive behaviors like smoking and drug use are impacted by much more than a rational weighing of pros and cons. There is the biological component of addiction, local-state-national prevention policies, social norms around the behavior, consequences experienced (or not experienced), ease of access to the substance, social support for quiting, money to support the addiction, etc. As you can see, knowledge alone will not change this kind of complex behavior.

Many of the most successful prevention strategies around this and other public health issues will continue to be a refocus from increasing individual knowledge to changing an environment that supports the behavior. In other words, laws that create smoke-free workplaces and crack down on establishments that sell cigarettes to underage kids will always be more effective at keeping the population healthy versus trying to educate (or scare) one individual at a time.


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