Velvet Glove, Iron Fist

I’ve just ordered my copy of Christopher Snowden’s book, Velvet Glove, Iron Fist: A History of Anti-Smoking, which looks like a fun read and a great resource. Its release date is June 22, but you can preorder a copy from the author for £12.99 within the UK, or US$24.99 elsewhere, including shipping. Three of the chapters are online. Here’s an important but largely neglected point from chapter 10:

By the 1990s, it was no longer tenable to argue that people smoked because they did not understand the risks. An assessment by W.Kip Viscusi found that smokers and nonsmokers alike had responded to thirty years of anti-smoking messages by hugely overestimating the risks of tobacco use. The scientific consensus was that around 10% of lifelong smokers would die of lung cancer but the American public believed, on average, that 38% of smokers would suffer that fate. While smokers tended to give a lower estimate (31%) than nonsmokers (42%), both groups had an exaggerated perception of the risks. This was not so surprising. State-funded public health campaigns often led people to believe that they are at greater risk than they really are. The UK’s AIDS awareness campaign, for example, created a panic about HIV in heterosexuals that was grossly disproportionate to the number of cases involved (171 in 15 years). Similarly, heavy news coverage of sudden death in dramatic incidents such as aeroplane accidents, terrorist attacks and child murders produce an exaggerated fear of what are, in reality, miniscule risks to the individual. Lung cancer and heart disease are significantly less rare, of course, but with an understanding of how people adapt their behaviour by balancing perceived hazards against perceived benefits, Viscusi estimated that if people had a true understanding of the hazards of smoking, the number of smokers would rise by 7.5%.

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