Why warnings against smoking could be injurious to health

Here's news: Showing gruesome pictures on the negative effects of smoking or carrying warnings on cigarette packs does nothing to make people smoke less.

Vivek Kaul August 11, 2012 11:14:43 IST
Why warnings against smoking could be injurious to health

First it was Naseeruddin Shah. Then came Rahul Bose. He was followed by Irrfan. And now the baton for the thinking woman’s sex symbol seems to have been passed on to Nawazuddin Siddiqui. Siddiqui, in his tour de force performance as Faizal Khan (pronounced Faijal) in Gangs of Wasseypur II, has firmly made himself an actor to watch out for.

His character is shown to be constantly smoking cigarettes or ganja throughout the movie. In a doped state he promises his mother “baap ka, dada ka, sabka badla lega tera Faijal”.  He even tries to impress his girlfriend, a la Rajinikanth, by trying to flip a cigarette, first unsuccessfully and then successfully, into his mouth. Given this, the movie does begin with the usual disclaimer “Cigarette smoking is injurious to health.  It causes cancer.” The disclaimer appears again after the interval.

The information and broadcasting ministry now has planned to tighten the screws further on movies which show characters smoking. In a circular dated 2 August 2012, the ministry has made it mandatory for films that have smoking scenes to shoot a 20-second disclaimer. This disclaimer is to be shot with the actor who is shown to be smoking in the movie.

It has to be repeated when the movie restarts after the interval, like the current disclaimer does. Over and above that a message saying “cigarette smoking is injurious to health” has to be flashed during the entire duration of a smoking scene. (You can read the complete report on the proposal here).

Why warnings against smoking could be injurious to health

Nawazuddin Siddiqui's character, Faizal Khan, in Gangs of Wasseypur II is shown to be constantly smoking cigarettes or ganja throughout the movie. Image courtesy IBNLive.com

The move is in line with the government policy to discourage smoking. In line with this policy, every packet of cigarette now carries gruesome pictures showing the negative effects of smoking. These graphic images show various ways in which people are affected by smoking.  These could be lung tumours, gangrenous feet and toes, throat cancers and so on.

On the face of it, these moves seem to make sense given that one-third of adult males around the world smoke. Nicotine addiction is one of the biggest killers of human beings around the world.

But the question is: do these warnings really work?

First and foremost the disclaimers in place, or those that are being put in place, work with the assumption that people who smoke “cigarettes” do not understand the risk of smoking. Is that true?

In his bestselling book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell talks about a study carried out by Harvard University which asked smokers to guess how many years of their life smoking would take, if they started smoking at the age of 21. The average response of the smokers was nine years, higher than the actual six or seven years that it would cost them. So the notion that smokers smoke because they do not understand the risks of smoking is at best juvenile.

But what about a country like India where half the population is functionally illiterate? Do those who smoke cigarettes understand the risk of smoking them?

If we look at the definition of poverty in this country, those spending less than or equal to Rs 28.65 per day in cities or Rs 22.42 in rural areas, are deemed to be poor. Now these are not the people who would be smoking cigarettes, which can cost anywhere from Rs 2-5 per stick. They simply cannot afford it. They smoke bidis.

So the chances are the average Indian who smokes cigarettes earns reasonably well and is educated enough to understand the risks of smoking. But he still smokes.

If the government really wants to discourage smoking and reduce the ill-effects of tobacco consumption in this country, they should be concentrating on bidis, gutkas and pan masalas rather than cigarettes.

That’s one part of the argument. People who smoke understand its risk and continue to smoke. The other part that needs to be discussed is whether pictorial warnings and disclaimers of various kinds work? Do they discourage people from smoking?

A recent research seems to suggest the opposite - ie, the warnings seem to encourage people to smoke more. Brand Guru Martin Lindstrom carried out functional magnetic resonance imaging tests on the brains of smokers a few years back. He showed them what he felt was one of the most effective anti-smoking ads he had ever seen.

“A group of people are sitting around and chatting and smoking. They’re having a jolly good time, except for one problem: instead of smoke, thick, greenish-yellow globules of fat are pouring out of the tips of their cigarettes, congealing, coalescing and splattering onto their ashtrays. The more the smokers talk and gesture, the more those caterpillar-sized wads of fats end up on the table, the floor, their shirtsleeves, all over the place.

The point, of course, is that smoking spreads these same globules of fat throughout your bloodstream, clogging up your arteries and wreaking havoc with your health,” writes Lindstrom in his book Buyology – How Everything We Believe About Why We Buy is Wrong.

When this advertisement was shown to smokers who took part in this experiment they weren’t put off by the gruesome images of fat. As Lindstrom writes, “They weren’t put off by the gruesome images of artery-clogging fat; they barely even noticed them.”

But what the message did instead was activate the “craving spot” in the brain. “Cigarette warnings...stimulated an area of the smokers’ brains called the nucleus accumbens, otherwise known as 'the craving spot.'. The region is a chain-link of specialised 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,” says Lindstrom. So the gruesome advertisement made people want to smoke more instead of less. This was an unintended consequence.

“Camel smokers experienced more cravings when they saw illustrations of Camels and Camel logos, and Marlboro smokers experienced more cravings when they saw illustrations of the iconic Marlboro Man,” writes Lindstrom in his new book Brandwashed – Tricks Companies Use to Manipulate Our Minds and Persuade Us to Buy.

Another move that has been resorted to is the blurring out of smoking images when the trailers and songs of new movies are played on television.  The song Chikni Chameli from Agneepath has some side dancers smoking bidis. This visual has been blurred out on television. In the trailers of Gangs of Wasseypur II, the chillum being smoked by Faizal Khan has been blurred out. What is the point of doing this?

I guess the only people who do not understand that the character is smoking a bidi or a chillum are the babus at the ministry of information and broadcasting. In fact, the blurring may even attract adolescents and children and they might try to figure out what exactly is being blurred. Ironically, scenes in older movies where characters are shown drinking and smoking continue to be broadcast with the entire scenes unedited.

Also this does bring us back to the fundamental point whether cinema is a reflection of the world that we live in? The world that we live in allows smoking. It is not an illegal activity. But rape is illegal. And movies are allowed to show rape scenes. Actor Shakti Kapoor made a career out of raping film heroines on screen. So if rape scenes are allowed on screen, what is the problem with smoking?

Vivek Kaul is a writer who can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com. He does not smoke.

Updated Date:

also read

Pakistan anti-France protests: TLP’s emergence is a result of Imran Khan govt's inexcusable policies
World

Pakistan anti-France protests: TLP’s emergence is a result of Imran Khan govt's inexcusable policies

The TLP was able to mobilise Punjabi youth in great numbers because the ground was fertile for the propagation of right-wing extremist ideas

Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: When gentrification is as much about people as it is about localities
Lifestyle

Bachi Karkaria's Tales from TJ Road: When gentrification is as much about people as it is about localities

Through this fortnightly column, Tales From TJ Road, Bachi Karkaria tells the story of Mumbai's metromorphosis

COVID-19 second wave: Tough but region-specific measures are needed to halt virus surge
India

COVID-19 second wave: Tough but region-specific measures are needed to halt virus surge

The Central and the state governments must move more quickly than they have to contain a potentially disastrous situation