Scare Tactics and Mortality

A brief look at the use of scare tactics to try to influence behaviors.

Graphic warnings on cigarette and tobacco products, mere warning labels, skull and crossbones on cleaning products, and transvaginal ultrasounds all have the common theme of being emotional appeals meant to shape behavior.

When you don’t buckle your seat belt in the car, it merely chimes and lights a “buckle-up” icon. Why not change that into screams or an icon of roadkill? Which reminds me of the cigarette lighters in India that chant Raam Naam Satya Hai (a funeral chant) (YouTube: Chanting Lighter).

And how long until the gun control advocates propose that gun buyers have to review graphic photographs of gunshot wounds before buying guns and ammunition?

The question is how far should we take these sorts of emotional appeals meant to remind people of inherent dangers? Should military enlistees be required to view statistics regarding casualties and mental illness risks associated with service? Should law school students be warned of the difficulties of finding jobs with their degrees?

Currently the use of scare tactics is rather arbitrary. People buying a home with a pool or having one built may pay higher insurance premiums, but they aren’t faced with the risks in graphic form. With Thanksgiving coming, we are reminded that every year people harm themselves in deep fryer accidents or undercooked stuffing causes food borne illnesses.

Parents of newborns often retrofit their homes in a religious ritual known as childproofing. This involves such feats as putting the kitchen knives behind electric fencing and turning all food into mush to prevent babies from wanting to eat it. They buy sophisticated surveillance equipment to spy on the babies at night, in case the babies are plotting anything. They even clothe the proto-humans in special garments to avoid granting them access to sensitive household equipment such as the toilet.

The question remains, how much does this all save in injuries and loss of life?

The fifth leading cause of death is accidents. But the top causes include heart disease, cancer, pulmonary diseases, and stroke. A decent amount (say 30%) of these others are estimated to be from tobacco use.

But that’s simplistic. Most of the deaths per year are of people over 64. The leading cause for people below 45 is accidents. 45-64 is cancer.

So smoking and other carcinogenic sources have long-term negative effects. Same with poor eating habits and lack of exercise. Does it make sense to use the same sort of scare tactic (skull-and-crossbones poison labeling) on something that kills you today and something that kills you in the distant future?

Same question for the ultrasound crowd. Will a scare tactic prevent abortions, when it is closer to the chronic condition (being a parent) category than the you will die if you eat a poison category?

Indeed, sans seatbelt seems more like a poison (a fixed risk of imminent death or injury) than tobacco or overeating do.

Ages 1-44 all have homicide in the top five leading causes of death. 10-44 has suicide in the top four. Where are the warnings there? Most homicides are in poor areas, and telling people they shouldn’t go home doesn’t help them unless they have an alternative. For suicide, mental health care would be required, so a scare tactic doesn’t really do.

But accidents (also known as unintentional injuries), they bear another look. Cars come in the top two for everyone at least one year of age. Unintentional poisoning is up there for ages 25-64. Gravity (the force, not the film)(AKA “unintentional fall”) leads among the over-64 group.

I’m just not sure how you would warn people about gravity. Parachute signs down from the sky? Plumb bobs?

But I do think that scare tactics need revisiting, because those old driver’s education videos didn’t make a big dent. There are still too many smokers. Diets need improving. More exercise is needed. And the overall quality of the environment needs work to protect our bodies from other (non-tobacco) man-made carcinogens.


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