'Quit smoking' messages less likely to stop smokers from smoking: study

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Nov 03, 2015 06:00 AM EST

Over 16 million Americans are affected by smoking-related diseases, and smoking causes a plethora of illnesses including cancer, heart disease, stroke, lung diseases, diabetes, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the CDC reports. To put things into perspective, tobacco use causes almost 6 million deaths yearly, possibly increasing to 8 million by the year 2030.

Health officials continuously campaign for smoking cessation, but a new study published in the Social Science & Medicine journal find that public health policies directed to smokers may have a negative effect on those who are trying to quit smoking, EurekAlert reports. According to researchers who penned the study, if smoking is stigmatized, people may find it harder to quit because of the negative emotions they feel (including anger, defensiveness, and lowered self-esteem) caused by the campaign messages.

For the study, Rebecca Evans-Polce, postdoctoral fellow, The Methodology Center and the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center at Penn State, together with colleagues from the U.K., Brazil and Germany studied 600 articles related to smoking self-stigma. Results revealed that "The stereotypes that smokers deal with are almost universally negative," Sara Evans-Lacko, research fellow, London School of Economics and Political Science, explained.

In fact, researchers recommend that even if there is evidence that stigmatizing smoking can help others quit, it may be better to create more positive health policies that focus on the benefits of smoking cessation, instead of reiterating negative stereotypes.

"Consequences of stigmatizing stereotypes ranged from increased intentions to quit smoking to increased stress to greater resistance to quitting smoking," Evans-Polce explained.

The results of one study showed that 30 to 40 percent of smokers felt high levels of family disapproval and social unacceptability, while 27 percent experienced a different treatment due to their smoking status. A separate study revealed that 39 percent of smokers believed people thought differently of them. The stigma surrounding smokers may lead to relapses, increased resistance to cessation, self-induced social isolation, and even more stress.

ZME Science reports that similar research published in the journal Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience showed how the brain responds to anti-smoking ads. A group of researchers from the universities of Michigan and Pennsylvania used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to scan the brains of 50 smokers as they viewed anti-smoking ads. They were asked to view 40 images one at a time while the researchers recorded their neural activity spikes. The study authors looked specifically at the medial prefrontal cortex (MPFC), which is responsible for handling decision-making process.

Researchers theorized that the images which stimulated the MPFC the most during the fMRI would achieve the best results in the campaign. The images were then sent to smokers in the New York area via e-mail with a campaign named "Stop smoking, start living." The researchers' theory proved right, as the ads that yielded the most brain activity in the MPFC area had the highest Click-Through Rate, ranging from 10 percent for the images that induced less activity int he MPFC to 26 percent for the images that induced more activity in the MPFC.

Emily Falk, a professor at Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication explained, "My hope is that moving forward, we might be able to use what we learned from this study and from other studies to design messages that are going to help people quit smoking and make them healthier and happier in the long run."

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