A recent post by Stanton Peele on how negative images of alcohol use might correlate with negative use of alcohol had me thinking about the difficulty in crafting public harm reduction messages in general.
In tobacco harm reduction, we operate on the basis that people are looking for safer alternatives and structure our messages accordingly. But, there are many people who smoke precisely because it is risky. Certainly, we know that the users everyone is worried about, the young, are particularly attracted to risk.
Anti-tobacco activists will often say that youth will be attracted to smokeless tobacco or electronic cigarettes if they were aware of how safe they are, and some say that they already think that and therefore use them. But since we know that youth are risk seeking it makes more sense that stressing the risky aspect of smoking should attract them, and conversely, stressing the comparative safety of the alternatives should make them less desirable.
And it goes beyond the youth. Many adults like to keep a little bit of risk in their lives. They generally do the healthy and safe things but then engage in a little speeding, a little drinking, a little smoking, just to feel alive. A little (or a lot of) risk seems to make one feel special and in the moment. Risk is an escape.
Characterizing a risky behavior as such may in fact then make it more likely. On the other hand, do we really want to send out the message that smoking is harmless? There are still many people who do respond to the health message. They are probably not smoking for the risk but for other reasons. As well, if there is one imperative we follow, it is to be truthful about the health effects of behaviors.
The good thing is that we have real life to educate us. Rather than formulated one dimensional media images of dangerous smoking or drunk driving accidents, we have access to an information flow which delivers the full range of effects. We have occasional happy and healthy smokers to contrast with old grey folks coughing their lungs out. We have friends sitting around dinner tables happily drinking wine and we have the drunk passed out in his front yard.
The world around you delivers much deeper harm reduction messages than any public service message.