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Tuesday, May 25, 1999 Published at 11:34 GMT 12:34 UK


Shock health warnings backfire

The public do not like being lectured about healthy living

Health promotion campaigns which use shock tactics to discourage people from harmful behaviour actually have the opposite effect, researchers have said.

The BBC's Nicola Carslaw: "Health scares can cause psychological side effects"
A survey by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC), based in Oxford, shows that health scares and warnings can cause unwanted psychological side effects.

The researchers identified three types of unwanted effect:

  • Warning fatigue - This is when people become desensitised to health messages and pay no attention whatsoever
  • Risk factor phobia - Some people become increasingly fearful about the hazards posed by their lifestyle and diet, often over-reacting
  • Forbidden fruit effect - A deliberate defiance of authoritarian health warnings. For instance, warnings about the dangers of eating beef on the bone resulted in a rush for just such products before they were banned by the government

The researchers say their study shows the need for more responsible health education programmes, and restraint by vested interest groups bombarding the public with conflicting advice.

SIRC researchers monitored media coverage of health issues and public responses over the past three years.

They found that warning fatigue was the most common effect. This was most graphically illustrated by the continued failure of health education campaigns to cut the rising obesity rate by encouraging people to take more exercise and improve their diet.

Crying wolf

[ image: Risk fear phobics stopped taking the pill]
Risk fear phobics stopped taking the pill
A SIRC spokesman said: "That is the danger of crying wolf. When there really is a wolf, you come up against warning fatigue: your audience has simply switched off."

Risk factor phobics tend to be avid readers of health pages and health magazines, the researchers found.

SIRC says this response is just as dangerous as warning fatigue, citing the 1995 scare over the safety of the contraceptive pill.

Many women stopped taking the pill as soon as they read reports of possible health risks, resulting in many unwanted pregnancies and a sudden 9% rise in the abortion rate.

SIRC found that the third response, that of doing the exact opposite, was particularly common among rebellious teenagers.

Researchers believe that this may be why warnings about the dangers of tobacco, drugs and alcohol often seem to have little effect.

SIRC is calling for a code of practice to regulate how health warnings are issued to the public.


Dr Peter Marsh, director of science and research, said: "The problem is that we have been bombarded with a whole series of scare stories, and in a lot of cases we then seem to witness U-turns quite quickly.

"In some cases, we seem to be seeing science by press release with one maverick scientist releasing the results of his research prematurely.

"People do not know who to believe or how to react, and there is a danger that when there is a real risk it will not be heard above all this noise."

Dr Marsh said part of the problem was that risk to health was often quantified in relative terms, when the actual risk was tiny.

He said that some debates - such as that surrounding the health risk of genetically modified food - had been dominated by organisations who were following an environmental agenda and had brought health issues in to back their argument.

"Telling people they are at risk from eating genetically modified soya is frankly irresponsible," he said.

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