Warning Label Science

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Sorry for the delay, I was in Mexico City this past week.  It's a beautiful city that in almost no way resembles the crime-ridden streets and smog-filled air that had been described to me.  Every other block is a park with a fountain, and the blocks are lined with storefronts selling  hot coffee, fresh fruit, and cigarettes sold either individually or a pack at a time.

I don’t smoke, but out of curiosity I examined the packages, wondering what kind of cigarettes they smoke in Mexico City.  I found, almost to my disappointment, that the packs looked nearly identical the ones in the United States.  They have the same brands and the same cowboy-centric advertising campaigns, but there is a difference.  The warnings were printed in a small, black font that was easy to ignore.

It was actually in striking contrast to warnings I had seen in other parts of Central and South America.  In Brazil the entire back panel of the package was taken up with jarring, almost morbid images portraying the maleffects of smoking.  Sometimes it was a graphic image of a tumor, other times a haunting image of an underweight baby.  The contrast between the Mexican and Brazilian cigarette packages couldn’t have been greater.  I had to wonder if it made a difference.

It turns out that it does.  Researchers did a study contrasting the reactions to cigarette packages from Mexico with relatively mild warnings with reactions to ones from Canada that contain more graphic imagery, similar to the packaging I had seen in Brazil.  They found that Canadian smokers not only noticed the graphic labels more, but were also significantly more able to identify the negative health outcomes associated with smoking.  Other independent studies have shown that this awareness translates into higher rates of quitting.  Simply by making science more salient Canada has been able to positively affect public health.

While the immediate results of these studies show the power of science to help people quit smoking, the real lesson is much larger.  Science has not one but two important roles in the formation of public policy.  The first role, obviously, is to lend its empiricism and quantification to help lawmakers form sound laws and regulations.  The second role is perhaps less obvious but likely even more important.  Science, in addition to forming policy, also has the responsibility to communicate and even actively advertise the science behind the policy.  A difference simply in the visibility of science can have an enormous effect not just on the laws that get made, but also on the ways they are followed.

I think Noah made an excellent post last week arguing that science has a very important role within politics and policy formation.  I think that this small example of cigarette warnings shows us that it is not just the policy, but the way policy is communicated that affects behavior.  I originally hadn’t intended this to be an entire post, but rather just a lead-in to another.  In my next post I’ll talk more about science in advertising public policy, and about how the ways that we advertise the fuel efficiency of cars and trucks influence which ones we buy, and how the traditional miles-per-gallon metric might be misleading.

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Comments

Here's a thought: to raise awareness about the relevance and importance of scientific research, wouldn't it be interesting if every device and/or medicine whose development was supported by federally-funded research (e.g. taxpayer $) carried a small symbol or label?

I'm only half kidding...

If it's related, the new projects funded by the stimulus package will begin to carry a recovery.org-branded logo. Although I'm sure it will mostly be limited to infrastructure and industrial projects, it offers support to the same point--that people are more aware of projects and information with a consistent branding they can see. I don't know if NIH will be getting a stamp or not. In any case, you're on to something.

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