Philip Alcabes discusses myths of health, disease and risk.

Iconography of Risk

For some time now, watching a ballgame on TV has meant sitting through sappy commercials that advertise remedies for what we’re supposed to call “erectile dysfunction.”  This season, at least in New York, the baseball viewer who isn’t quick with the remote will be treated to gruesome negative advertising about smoking.  If you’re squeamish, you have to move fast to avoid staring at the inside of arteries, hands with amputated fingers, or throats with holes in them.

This week, the city’s health department announces that it wants to require thousands of retailers who sell tobacco products to put up posters with the same disgust-inducing images – as Jennifer 8. Lee noted at the Times‘s City Room blog on Wednesday and an AP story (picked up by Newsday) explained on Thursday.

And it won’t be little stickers the stores are required to put up:  these posters would have to be at least a foot-and-a-half square.

It looks like the city’s health agency is going to continue its program of treating New Yorkers like we’re stupid and reckless, despite the departure of the bluenose Dr. Thomas Frieden (who left NYC to become CDC Director this month).  The prevailing view at the health department seems to be that officials have to keep sermonizing or we dumb slobs will slide back into bad habits.

As Jan Barrett noted Thursday, people who smoke nowadays know quite well what they’re doing, and why.

Barrett, an ex-smoker, notes that “every time I lit up a cigarette I was fully aware of what it was doing to my body. I mean how can any smoker not know these days what smoking can do to them? There are warning signs everywhere. I don’t care how many warning signs I saw or heard about I still lit that cigarette every morning.”

The health department claims that negative advertising will help convince smokers they should quit. But smokers don’t need to be convinced — about 70% of smokers have tried to quit, and (as the above comment exemplifies) some of those who don’t quit are aware of the dangers but smoke anyway.

The department also claims the gruesome-ad campaign will dissuade teens from taking up smoking to begin with.  But retail stores wouldn’t be the place to post the ads, then – since the shops aren’t permitted to sell to minors in any case (nor would TV: if it were teenagers who were watching baseball games, there wouldn’t be so many Viagra ads).

We might think that resorting to a signage campaign like this is a cover-up for inactivity, but it isn’t:  the health department already runs a vigorous program of smoking-cessation activities , which can include nicotine-replacement therapies.

No, the new gruesome-poster initiative isn’t about health; it’s closer to religion.  The images of smoking-induced damage are iconography.

Frank Furedi calls this sort of thing secular moral entrepreneurship.

The iconography of the religion of risk avoidance is meant to remind sinners – people who eat the wrong foods, don’t exercise enough, have sex without condoms, fail to take medication for our depression, or smoke cigarettes — that it might be rigorous to follow the True Faith of Health, but it’s worth it.  “Look at how others have suffered in order to learn what you now know,” they say.  “How can you go on with your nasty ways when you’ve got a chance to save yourself?”

The city’s new health commissioner, Dr. Thomas Farley, is apparently as ardent as Frieden about browbeating and hectoring people who fail to comply with health guidelines.  The television advertising and the signage isn’t meant to make the population healthier – its job is to remind us how to behave, and the consequences of impropriety.

Tags: , , , , .

This entry was posted on Saturday, June 27th, 2009 at 8:18 am and is filed under Behavior, Disease, Health Professions, News, public health, Risk. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.