Everyone knows smoking is bad for you, because it says so on the side of the cigarette pack in little words. But do they really understand the risks and how those risks increase when you smoke? Apparently not, because people continue to start smoking while others don’t even try to quit. But Stanford researchers found it is the way in which people look at the risk that determine how high that risk really is to them.
More than 13,000 U.S. smoking and non-smoking adults were interviewed on their “perceptions about the link between smoking” and the risk of disease. Researchers asked “how likely they thought it is that smokers and non-smokers will develop lung cancer.” They discovered that respondents looked at risks between smokers and non-smokers in one of two ways: as a percentage or as a ratio.
When looking at the risk as a percentage, the example they used was if respondents thought a smoker had a 30 percent chance of developing cancer and a non-smoker only a 10 percent chance then smokers are 20 percentage points more likely to develop cancer. However, if respondents looked at risk of developing cancer as a ratio between the 30 percent for smokers vs the 10 percent for non-smokers, then the smoker would be three times more likely to develop lung cancer.
How people looked at the risk would determine if they over- or underestimated the risks. The researchers determined that the “vast majority underestimated the relative risk” of a smoker to develop lung cancer. However, smokers and non-smokers who looked at smoking in terms of the ratio “were less likely to start and more likely to quit smoking.” According to the researchers, “people seem to think naturally about relative risk.”
American cigarette packs include warnings that smoking causes certain diseases, but the warnings are small and rarely seen on the side of the package. None of the warnings state the risk of smoking, which may prompt more people to think about their habit and quitting. If we truly want to reduce the number of smokers in the United States, perhaps it is time for us to be truthful to them about the risk of smoking on their health.
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Cigarette Health Warnings image: From the First to the Last Ash: The History, Economics and Hazards of Tobacco.
Health warnings on cigarette packs image: Tobacco Free Florida.