One sometimes wonders just how much information about their health risks that men and women “in the street” really pay any attention to at all.

I used to be a cigarette smoker (and I do mean a serious smoker) but even by the age of about 20 I was well aware that this quite certainly wasn’t the best idea in the world. It’s just that by then I was hooked and it took me the best part of another 30 years finally to kick the habit (because I wasn’t really trying hard enough).

Now, however, we learn (according to an article in TIME magazine, and based on data presented at the European Lung Cancer Conference in Geneva last Friday), that

In a study of more than 1,600 French smokers and non-smokers, 34% said that lighting up 10 cigarettes a day would not put them at higher risk of lung cancer. And fewer than 40% knew that their risk of lung cancer wouldn’t disappear if even if they quit smoking.

And its not as though the participants in this study were all naive and between 18 and 25 years of age. In fact they were all between 40 and 75 years of age, which means that they have spent most of their adult lives hearing strong public health warnings about the dangers of smoking. Here’s a link to the original media release on which the report in TIME was based.

Some Americans today would probably be astonished at how widespread cigarette smoking still is in parts of Europe. However, here in the USA we are still, by no means, saints ourselves (at a national average that is just over 1,000 cigarettes per person per year). By comparison, France is not that bad (at 854 cigarettes per person per year) when you compare it to countries like Greece and Serbia (at close to 3,000 cigarettes per person per year). And it is not as though the French population has been any more immune to widespread public health information about the association between smoking and lung cancer over the past 30 years than we have here in America. Actually France is one of the nations in which anti-smoking education and legislation has been highly successful over the past few years.

The author of this study (Dr. Laurent Greillier of Aix Marseille University in the south of France) is quoted as follows:

Our results suggest that public health policies must continue to focus on the tobacco pandemic, and notably initiate campaigns concerning the risk of any cigarette.

The question that I would ask, however, is whether we are deluding ourselves about the degree to which current public health information really “gets through” to most of the people who most need that information. The public health costs of proven poor health behaviors (death included) are way higher than most people seem to realize. This failure to actually accept the link between smoking and lung cancer is just a particularly striking example of this failure.

What are some of the other proven poor health behaviors that many of us seem to live with quite willingly? Here are a few:

  • Drinking and driving
  • Opiate addiction (using illegal drugs like heroin and methamphetamines and prescription drugs)
  • Morbid obesity (and I am not talking about this as a consequence of clinical illness, but as a simple consequence of excessive food consumption and lack of exercise)

We’re in a sorry state if about a third of us think that none of these are going to kill us either (and perhaps others along with us too)!

About Mike Scott

Mike Scott is a highly experienced health care communications strategist with Calcium. He is also a board member of three different patient advocacy organizations. To get more detail, see his profile on LinkedIn.

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