This appeared in the NY Times. What an incredibly stupid piece of
"research." In the uncomfortable setting of an MRI scanner,
projections of cigarette pack warnings reminded people of cigarettes
and thus, one can guess, of their comforting effects. This is
assuming, probably falsely that researchers can tell form brian scans
what emotional effects various sensations have. It appears no non-
smokers were tested or even asked about whether the labels did
anything to discourage them from smoking.
December 12, 2008
By MARTIN LINDSTROM
TEN years ago, in settling the largest civil lawsuit in American
history, Big Tobacco agreed to pay the 50 states $246 billion, which
they’ve used in part to finance efforts to prevent smoking. The
percentage of American adults who smoke has fallen since then to just
over 20 percent from nearly 30 percent, but smoking is still the No. 1
preventable cause of death in the United States, and smoking-related
health care costs more than $167 billion a year.
To reduce this cost, the incoming Obama administration should abandon
one antismoking strategy that isn’t working.
A key component of the Food and Drug Administration’s approach to
smoking prevention is to warn about health dangers: Smoking causes
fatal lung cancer; smoking causes emphysema; smoking while pregnant
causes birth defects. Compared with warnings issued by other nations,
these statements are low-key. From Canada to Thailand, Australia to
Brazil, warnings on cigarette packs include vivid images of lung
tumors, limbs turned gangrenous by peripheral vascular disease and
open sores and deteriorating teeth caused by mouth and throat cancers.
In October, Britain became the first European country to require
similar gruesome images on packaging.
But such warnings don’t work. Worldwide, people continue to inhale 5.7
trillion cigarettes annually — a figure that doesn’t even take into
account duty-free or black-market cigarettes. According to World Bank
projections, the number of smokers is expected to reach 1.6 billion by
2025, from the current 1.3 billion.
A brain-imaging experiment I conducted in 2006 explains why
antismoking scare tactics have been so futile. I examined people’s
brain activity as they reacted to cigarette warning labels by using
functional magnetic resonance imaging, a scanning technique that can
show how much oxygen and glucose a particular area of the brain uses
while it works, allowing us to observe which specific regions are
active at any given time.
We tested 32 people (from Britain, China, Germany, Japan and the
United States), some of whom were social smokers and some of whom were
two-pack-a-day addicts. Most of these subjects reported that cigarette
warning labels reduced their craving for a cigarette, but their brains
told us a different story.
Each subject lay in the scanner for about an hour while we projected
on a small screen a series of cigarette package labels from various
countries — including statements like “smoking kills” and “smoking
causes fatal lung cancers.” We found that the warnings prompted no
blood flow to the amygdala, the part of the brain that registers
alarm, or to the part of the cortex that would be involved in any
effort to register disapproval.
To the contrary, the warning labels backfired: they stimulated the
nucleus accumbens, sometimes called the “craving spot,” which lights
up on f.M.R.I. whenever a person craves something, whether it’s
alcohol, drugs, tobacco or gambling.
Further investigation is needed, but our study has already revealed an
unintended consequence of antismoking health warnings. They appear to
work mainly as a marketing tool to keep smokers smoking.
Barack Obama has said he’s been using nicotine gum to fight his own
cigarette habit. His new administration can help other smokers quit,
too, by eliminating the government scare tactics that only increase
Martin Lindstrom is the author of “Buyology: Truth and Lies About Why
Copyright 2008 The New York Times Company
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