The government has been insisting on louder warnings for smokers. But strangely they ignore the warning and smoke more. Here’s why
Everyone knows that smoking kills. Smoking causes fatal lung cancer, causes emphysema, leads to birth defects if pregnant mothers smoke a lot. This is why cigarette packs contain statutory warning. The warnings have gone bigger and bolder over the years. According to a notification issued by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on 15 October 2014, the specified health warning should cover at least 85% of the principal display area of the package. Out of the 85% area, 60% should cover pictorial health warning and rest 25% should have textual health warning. It needs to be on the top edge of the package. For box, carton and pouches, the specified warning must appear on both sides of the package. In addition, the specified health warning on tobacco products are required to be rotated every 24 months. Even during the 24 months, there should be two different images, replaced every 12 months.
But are such loud statutory warnings working? Sales of cigarettes have hardly slowed down in India.
The same is story all over the world. European cigarette makers place their warning in coal-black, Magic Marker-thick frames, making them impossible miss. In Canada, Thailand, Australia and Brazil, the warnings are gorily, forensically true-to-life, showing full-colour images of lung tumours, gangrenous feet and toes, and the open sores and disintegrating teeth that accompany mouth and throat cancers.
These graphic images are designed to make people stop smoking. They have not. Despite tobacco advertising bans, banning of smoking in public places and health warning from the medical community, and massive government investment in antismoking campaigns, global consumers continue to smoke more than 15 billion cigarettes every day – that’s 10 million cigarettes sold every minute, a figure which doesn't include duty-free cigarettes, or the huge international black market trade.
Why are smokers blind to warning labels? We can know only if we can enter the smokers’ mind and see how they react to the warnings on the label and other places. Marketing expert Martin Lindstrom tried to find out exactly that by using fMRI technology on 2081 volunteers from America, England Germany, Japan, and China, who were put through a brain scanner. What he found was startling. Here is what the fMRI study noticed about Marlene, one of the volunteers, a story that Lindstrom narrates in his book Buyology.
“Marlene was in the scanner for a little over an hour. A small reflective apparatus resembling a car's rear-view mirror projected a series of cigarette warning labels from various angles, one after another, on a nearby screen. Asked to rate her desire to smoke during the slide show, Marlene signalled her responses by pressing down on what's known as a button box-a small black console resembling a hand-sized accordion-as each image flashed by. We continued to perform brain scans on new subjects over the next month and a half.
Five weeks later, the team leader, Dr Calvert, presented me with the result. I was, to put it, mildly, startled. Even Dr Calcert was taken back by the findings: warning labels on the sides, front and back of cigarette pack had no effect on suppressing the smokers' craving at all. Zero. In other words, all those gruesome photographs, government regulations, billions of dollars some 123 countries had invested in non-smoking campaigns, all amounted, at the end of a day, to, day a big waste of money.
“Are you Sure?” I kept saying.
“Pretty Damn certain”. She replied, adding that thee statistical validity was as could be.
But this wasn't half as amazing as what Dr Calvert discovered once she analysed the result further. Cigarette warning, whether they informed smokers they were at risk of contracting emphysema, heart disease, or a host of other chronic condition-had in fact stimulated an area of the smokers' brains called the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as “the craving spot.” This region is a chain-link of specialized neurons that lights up when the body desires something-whether it's alcohol, drugs, tobacco, sex, or gambling. When stimulated, the nucleus accumbens requires higher and higher doses to get its fix.
In short, the fMRI result showed that cigarette warning labels not only failed to deter smoking, but by activating the nucleus accumbens, it appeared they actually encouraged smokers to light up. We could not help but conclude that those same cigarette warning labels intended to curb smoking, reduce cancer, and save lives had instead become a killer marketing tool for the tobacco industry.
If you ask the smokers about the warning labels they would say, as Marlene did, that they believed the warning were right and it made them smoke less. Maybe because they thought it was the right answer, or what the researchers wanted to hear, or may be because they felt guilty about what they knew smoking was doing to their health. But as Dr Calvert concluded later, it wasn't that our volunteers felt ashamed about what smoking was doing to their bodies; they felt guilty that the labels stimulated their brains' craving areas. It was just that their conscious minds could not tell the difference. Marlene’s brain, the ultimate no bullshit zone-had adamantly contradicted her. Just as our brains do to each one of us every single day.
As government around the world make warning labels bigger and gorier and louder, they may ponder over this enormous wasted effort. There must be ways to wean people away from smoking but the way we are going about it, would achieve little.