Saturday, 19 July 2008

Cigarettes, Sugar and our Innate Short-Termism

We continue to be amused by adverts from the 50s depicting smiling, young smokers and now deeply ironic catch-phrases (here's an example). There’s a sense in which we see those adverts as a reflection of our naïve past – how could we have been so stupid that we thought cigarettes should be promoted in this way? Yet the more profound irony - that we continue to permit their sale today – means the joke is on us.

Are humans afflicted with innate short-termism? It would make sense that our mechanisms for perceiving peril are geared around dangers whose effects manifest themselves immediately or in the near future. After all, we spent hundreds of thousands of years learning to avoid primarily animals, poisons, cliffs and dangerous water.

In the modern world, abundant with insidious and unproven risks, the context of danger has changed in a way that we seem ill-equipped to comprehend. One explanation could be that in the past we never lived long enough to have to worry about the long term effects of anything; but perhaps more to the point, it’s almost impossible, without the scientific rigour that has developed in the last few centuries, to connect dangers with their long term effects. Evolution, or natural selection, is our natural way of dealing with long term dangers - but that helps the species, not individuals.

Two things keep the cigarette bandwagon rolling – the unwillingness of the authorities to ban them and our willingness to smoke them. Together, these factors could be taken as a measure of how dangerous society thinks smoking is. In other words, not very.

The rule seems to be this: the less serious the immediate consequences of doing something once and the longer it takes for more serious consequences to become evident, the less dangerous an activity is perceived to be; and this does make sense when there are no additional influences on the frequency of the activity. If you bang your head against the door once in frustration it’s fairly harmless. Do it 100 times a day for 30 years and you’ll be in pretty poor shape – but why would you? Sensibly, we have not taken steps against head-banging.

Yet if a third factor, such as addictiveness – increases the likelihood that we will continue the activity for prolonged periods, we would fundamentally re-evaluate our assessment of the danger, right? Apparently not.

Clearly I am taking a deliberately black-and-white standpoint here to illustrate my point. In truth we do know how dangerous smoking is. The government knows, smokers know - everyone knows. It’s not our perception of long-term danger that is faulty, it’s our willingness to do something about it. We know that smoking is bad, but because each smoking incident does not generate the kind of highly charged emotional event we are hard-wired to respond to, our collective will to do something about it is profoundly weakened.

Instead, we are content to let the ponderous machinery of science, commerce and regulation steer us inexorably towards an eventual ban on cigarettes, seemingly indifferent to the ongoing misery their continued sale causes to millions. If smoking a single cigarette caused immediate and significant damage to our respiratory function, you can bet we’d have bullied the authorities into banning them years ago – even if the next 100 packets made the problem no worse.

Thanks to our innate short-termism, the ability of science to protect individuals against the long term dangers that would previously have taken natural selection thousands of years to achieve, is diminished. People continue to die from smoking related diseases long after it was proven beyond a shadow of doubt that smoking causes cancer.

Yes, I know there are powerful tobacco lobbies at work and that governments make millions from the tax revenues - and now that we are where we are, expecting an immediate ban is absurd; but my point is that we got where we are in the first place. The speed with which democratic governments act tends to be in proportion to the extent to which people care about something.

So – an addictive substance with low-level, cumulative effects which ultimately cause significant damage to our bodies. Seems like a description that could be applied to refined sugar – see my post here. Except with sugar the real kicker is that it’s everywhere and we don’t know how dangerous it is – or at least it is not as widely accepted.

I leave you with this question - in 50 years time, will we regard today’s adverts for sweets depicting happy, healthy children with the same wry derision as today we view cigarette adverts of the past? If so, I hope it will be under circumstances free of a deeper irony.

See Also:
We’re all Junkies
Why (Refined) Sugar is Bad: Some References
The Worst Sugar Pushers of all - Health Food Stores


Anonymous said...

What about those sweet cigrettes you could get when you were a kid. They often had a picture of a superhero on the front as well. That's getting kids into smoking by giving them refined sugar! Brutal.

Scott Kustes said...

Great article. We are inherently short-term in our worries. I recall reading an article with a doctor discussing this. A patient of his was a smoker with emphysema, yet was worried about catching bird flu even though not a single case had been found in the US. There was a similar thing with an AIDS patient that had quit taking his meds, but was worried about some rare illness.

Good stuff
Scott Kustes
Modern Forager

Methuselah said...

Thanks Scott. I had always assumed that in the case of smoking, it was also the element of probability that confounded people's ability to see the danger in its true light, but in the AIDS example (from what I know) not taking meds would be a guarantee of bad consequences. It seems that once we become accustomed to a threat that is promised in the distant future, motivation to act in the short term is blunted for some reason.

My Year Without said...

okay, not only do cigarette companies know how dangerous their products are, but since their really big class action law suit, the phillip morris website basically says "don't smoke" "smoking is harmful to your health" "smoking may cause....etc." it is so funny to me that they actually say these things to be legal on their website, yet keep advertising in hopes of more people smoking!!

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