Stub It Out

The Journal (Newcastle, England), February 12, 2004 | Go to article overview

Stub It Out


Byline: By Louella Houldcroft

Fifty years after an indisputable link was made between tobacco and lung cancer we are still smoking. Louella Houldcroft asks why we are so good at being bad?..

If you take a step back and think about it logically then it makes no sense whatsoever.

For five decades we have known - without a shadow of a doubt - that smoking causes lung cancer, an incurable disease with debilitating symptoms for which, ultimately, the only definite outcome is death.

Since then there has been a constant stream of scientific research linking smoking to a host of potentially fatal illnesses - heart disease, strokes, osteoporosis, breast cancer, cervical cancer, mouth cancer, throat cancer, pancreatic cancer, bladder cancer, stomach cancer, liver cancer, leukaemia" The list is endless.

In fact, tobacco kills around 120,000 people in the UK every year - the equivalent of a plane crash every day in which all the passengers perish.

Yet despite the indisputable facts, we are still smoking in our millions.

Every day more young people - and particularly young women - are ignoring the warnings of the experts and taking up the habit, putting their health, other people's health and the health of future generations at risk.

And it's not just with tobacco that we take risks with our health for the sake of a few moments of pleasure.

Drugs, unprotected sex, alcohol abuse and an over-indulgence in high-fat foods are all taking their toll and shortening our lifespan.

When it finally catches up with us, 10, 20, 30 years down the line, when we're parents or expectant grandparents and we're diagnosed with lung cancer, suffer a heart attack or test positive for HIV, then the feelings of regret will be immense.

But by then the "if only's" and the "what if's" will be too late, the damage will be done and there'll be no going back.

So why do we believe ourselves to be invincible when all the facts point to the opposite?

According to Dr Ian Inglis, a senior lecturer in sociology at Northumbria University, it's due to a condition, or coping mechanism, known as "cognitive dissonance".

"In simplest terms, cognitive dissonance means the ability to have two conflicting opinions at the same time," he explains.

"A lot of smokers exhibit this behaviour where on the one hand they know smoking leads to lung cancer but their brain won't allow them to accept that it's ever going to happen to them.

"The concept that something you do regularly is likely to kill you is very difficult to accept and so the brain separates it into the effect on the masses versus the implications for the individual."

So, rather than accept the fact that we are committing slow-motion suicide and risking lung cancer in a spouse or child, a smoker may simply convince himself that all the overwhelming evidence linking smoking to disease is in some way flawed.

"It's like driving without a seatbelt," explains Dr Inglis.

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