What do you think scares people more, sudden death or baldness? It’s vanity that wins each time. The fear of losing hair and developing premature wrinkles are more likely to make smokers quit or cut down than killer heart attacks and cancers, reports a study of the impact of cigarette pack warnings published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology on Thursday.
A study of smokers between the ages of 17 and 41 in the US, Switzerland and Germany showed that instead of making smokers quit, death-related anti-smoking messages prompted them to light up more often to cope with the inevitability of death. Warnings unrelated to death — such as ‘smoking makes you impotent’, ‘smoking makes you unattractive’, ‘smoking brings you and the people around you severe damage’ — were found to be more effective in changing attitudes. Social messages worked best among young smokers who took to it to ‘fit in’.
Studies in the past bear out that when done well, the impact of warnings among young smokers in New York brought down rates among 15 to 19 year olds from 29 per cent in 2002 to 19 per cent in 2007. A school-based study in Australia (Addiction, 2008) reported that graphic warning labels on cigarette packs are noticed by most adolescents and helped to reduce smoking among them.
In Canada, graphic health warnings have already contributed to an overall 3 per cent drop in smoking rates. In India, where some 250 million people consume tobacco, a similar drop in numbers would translate into 6 million people quitting tobacco use. This, however, is not likely to happen. India’s tobacco warnings are easily the most ineffective in the world and, like the previous ‘Statutory Warning: Cigarette Smoking is Injurious to Health’, are not likely to have any impact on smoking rates.
Everyone knows smoking is bad for health, that it causes lung cancer in an unlucky few and heart attacks in some others. Few, however, give thought to how it can kill a non-smoking partner or an unborn child (it is well established that smoking can not only cause impotence but also abortions).
In India, 57 per cent men and 10.9 percent women use some form of tobacco, which kills 10 lakh people — 2,500 people die each day — annually. The point of the warnings is to make people aware of the health consequences and make an informed choice. A four-country study comparing warning labels data from Australia, Canada, the UK and the US (American Journal of Preventive Medicine, 2007) found that 84 per cent smokers in Canada, where pictorial warnings are required, considered labels as a source of health information, compared with 47 per cent in the US, where text-only labels are required.
Graphic warnings need to educate people and not become grim reminders of disease and death that usually get blocked out. The warnings in India do neither: they are a bad joke that only the tobacco industry is laughing at. n