In the world today there is an increasing focus on the negative aspects of smoking and a concerted attempt to reduce the presence of smoking in society. Given the harmful effects of this addiction on not only the active smoker but those around them this seems like a prudent move. Two of the approaches with the goal of minimising public exposure to cigarette smoke are the banning of smoking in businesses and public places and the addition of more strenuous warning labels on the cigarettes themselves.

Both of these tactics have been used in New Zealand with varying levels of acceptance (and success). Smoking bans draw the criticism that individual freedoms are being curtailed. This may be a legitimate point but conceptually it is no different than government enforcement of wearing seatbelts while driving on public roads. The aim is to reduce the risk of harm to the public. The real question in each case is whether the intervention is effective in it’s goals.

Addressing this question two studies last year looked at each of these methods, the first I will look at is a meta-analysis (with the concomitant problems those have, that’s another story) of the effect of smoking bans on the hospital admissions of acute myocardial infarction (that’s a heart attack to you and me). The analysis found that smoking bans were associated with an average reduction of heart attacks by 17%.

For each year a ban was in place it was accompanied by a reduction of the incidence rate ratio (the number of new cases per unit of population eg 10 cases per 100,000 people) of 26%. This indicates that the longer a ban is in force the fewer people who will be affected by heart attacks. Looks like an effective strategy to me, 17% is nothing to be sneezed at when it is individual lives you are considering. Depending on individual risk factors the chance of death in the 30 days after a heart attack can be up to 16%.

An editorial discussing these findings in more depth (in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, the journal this study was published in) can be found Here and is a good read.

The second study focused on the how well explicit (i.e. emphasising death) cigarette pack warnings encouraged smokers to quit. Specifically it looked at smokers for whom the act of smoking formed part of the basis for their self-esteem. Subjects undertook a questionnaire that evaluated whether smoking was tied to their self esteem using statements like ‘‘Smoking allows me to feel valued by others,” and ‘‘Smoking allows me to feel worthy.” (as well as negative versions). The subjects rated how much they agreed with the statements and this was used to determine the smoking-based self esteem for each subject.

Participants were then shown pictures of cigarette packs that either had mortality related warnings (e.g. ‘‘Smoking leads to deadly lung cancer.”) or more moral or self esteem related warnings (e.g. ‘‘Smoking brings you and the people around you severe damage” and ‘‘Smoking makes you unattractive”). After a delay to allow the warnings to be filtered out of conscious awareness the subjects were asked a further series of questions to assess the effect of the warnings (e.g. ‘‘Do you intend to smoke more or less in the future?” ‘‘Do you intend to quit smoking in the future?”).

Subjects for whom smoking formed part of the basis for their self esteem actually increased their likelihood of smoking in response to warnings emphasising mortality. For these people it was the self image warnings that were most effective. Unfortunately is seems that the opposite is true for individuals that do not consider smoking to be an important factor of their self esteem so a one size fits all approach would probably not be effective. The study authors suggest that specific populations could have warnings tailored to be most effective depending on the relevance smoking has to the group identity (e.g. “young smokers who want to impress their peers.”).

This result may be applicable to other areas where minimising harm is the goal, such as drink driving campaigns.

In summary, despite any reservations regarding the form that inducements to stop smoking take it seems that the benefits are indeed worth the attempt. Also, as I often point out, the real world is more nuanced and complicated than we would generally like it to be, more effort may be required to identify sub-groups that respond most to different strategies but this also looks to be worth trying.

Enhanced by Zemanta