Friday, December 12, 2008

Fear-based warnings don't stop smokers

A fascinating op-ed piece from today's New York Times.

Using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), Martin Lindstrom conducted a study that involved showing subjects warnings on cigarette packages from overseas. While U.S. packages have statements about the ill effects of smoking, many cigarette cartons overseas actually depict images of lung tumors caused by smoking, and other such graphic images.

MRI technology allows researchers to tell what parts of the brain receive oxygen, and hence, what part of the brain are in use. Lindstrom was looking to see if the warnings activated the amygdala—the part of the brain that registers alarm.

The images did not affect the amygdala. Instead, they affected the nucleus accumbens—the part of the brain that turns on when a person craves something.

So, it appears from this study, the warnings are having the exact opposite of the effect intended, and instead of savings lives, may actually be helping lead to preventable deaths through smoking.

It's a small study (only 32 people), but still, the results are startling and deserve follow-up with further research. If the trend continues, it looks like the Attorney General's office needs to change the way they approach policy on cigarette warnings.

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