On a recent visit to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I was disheartened and surprised to learn that nearly 1 in 5 American adults still smoke cigarettes.
How could this be?
After all, everyone knows cigarette smoking is the leading cause of preventable death in the U.S., as well as a major culprit behind deadly diseases like cancer and heart disease.
But then I learned how tobacco companies lure smokers into believing that certain types of cigarettes are somehow healthier than others. According to a recent study conducted at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, Canada, simply attaching a color descriptor to a brand (e.g., "gold," "silver" or "purple") or describing a cigarette as "slim" or "long" is enough to convince some smokers that the brand is less harmful. (These descriptors have replaced terms like "light," "low-tar" and "mild," which were banned by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2010.)
When I spoke with David Hammond, one of the study's authors, he explained that the tobacco industry uses colors and descriptors to entice consumers much the same way the food industry does. "The difference is that some foods genuinely do contain lower calories or meaningful differences in nutrients, whereas all cigarettes are equally harmful," said Hammond.
And let's face it, he added; most smokers know that smoking is unhealthy, which can make for some cognitive dissonance:
You're doing something that you know is bad for you, but the creative packaging gives you reassurance that you're choosing a less harmful brand. "This is what has been referred to as the ‘fraud' of light and low-tar cigarettes," said Hammond. "People think they are making a healthier decision when in fact they are not. Our research demonstrates how easy it is to manipulate these beliefs through pack design."
Recognizing the fraudulent marketing -- and giving up all cigarettes -- is especially important if you suffer from heartburn, since heartburn puts you at greater risk for developing Barrett's esophagus, and a new study in the journal Gastroenterology found that smokers with Barrett's esophagus are twice as likely to develop esophageal cancer compared to those who never smoked.
The good news: It's never too late to reap the health benefits of quitting smoking. Ready to kick the habit?
- Ask your doctor for help.
- Garner support and make it more difficult to go back on your decision by announcing your intentions to family and friends.
- Enlist the aid of patches, gums and other medicines that can help with nicotine withdrawal, if necessary.
- Check out Smokefree.gov for more information.
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