Why Johnny still smokes
Unhealthy behaviors and why we can't stop.
MEDICINE MENSCH: Nobody's Perfect
March 3, 2006
When it comes to our health, we can all be careless. Why do some of us keep smoking when we have relatives who died young from lung cancer and heart disease? Why do we eat like it's going out of style when New York is chock-full of obese diabetics? Why are so many Sabbath tables heavily laden with cholent and challah with nary a fruit or vegetable?
All these behaviors are hard to change; some are even addictive. There's also ample scientific proof that some of them are partially society's fault. It is attractive to smoke when cigarettes are made to seem glamorous. It is hard to eat a healthy diet when the nearest store with fresh fruits and vegetables is 25 blocks away, in the rich people's neighborhood. To take a more familiar example, more and more of us are sedentary and overweight — with the rest of society forced to pick up the slack.
But every year there are many people who stop smoking, and there are others who manage to lose weight, even when all outside factors are stacked against them. Conversely, many of us who keep smoking, drink to excess or eat unwisely aren't doing so under duress. No one is holding a gun to our heads.
What's the cause of our errors in judgment? I don't know. But there are some potential answers.
We don't know any better. Why would someone knowingly behave in a way that has negative consequences? By nature, people strive for the good, one could say, and self-damage is only committed out of ignorance. But after years of intensive health education financed by everyone from the feds to Philip Morris, it's hard to find the untroubled soul who still believes that Marlboros are the doctor's best friend or that obesity is not damaging. Our response to being (re-)informed about the harms of this or that consumption is not a surprised "Oh, really?" but a guilty headshake and a sorrowful "I know, I know! I should stop!" There are those cases — such as in the early years of the AIDS epidemic — in which education makes, or would have made, all the difference, but not when an unhealthful behavior like smoking, poor diet or lack of exercise is already deeply ingrained.
We don't like to think about risks. Many people ride their bikes without a helmet — not because they don't know that helmets prevent injury, and not because they're foolhardy, but because they don't think about it. No one likes to think about car accidents, least of all on a beautiful spring day with the wind in your hair as you fly through Central Park.
That's an oversimplification. We do think about some risks quite a bit: The press has been preoccupied with recent disclosures about the ineffectiveness of the low-fat diet and with the pandemic of influenza among birds. But to use an unpoetic word, we misprioritize. It's not bird flu or fatty foods that are to blame for some of the world's worst and most frequent health problems — it's unwise, widespread behaviors, the consequences of which are easily predictable.
We can't be helped. Somewhere between the naiveté I started with as a medical student (just smile and be friendly, and people will cooperate to make themselves healthy) and the desperation of the cynics ("If there's a problem, it must be the patient's fault") is a disquieting truth. There are some of us who make decisions that doctors would call the wrong ones. Then, when we are involved in a conversation about our own health, given all the information and opportunities we need and provided with dedicated staff, experts in their fields who want nothing more than to help us over the rough patches — then, finally . . . we make exactly the same unwise health decision we made in the first place. Given all the necessary data, we make a different decision than public-health workers would make on our behalf.
Maybe that's because of the reasons I already mentioned: We don't know about the scientific evidence, or we can't appreciate technical discussions of statistical risk. But maybe, in the final analysis, we just don't want to. In other words:
It's out of our hands. We would change, but we can't. Quit bothering us. I don't like to exercise. I enjoy my cigarette. No one likes to be nagged. The more we're talked down to about what we should and shouldn't do, the more difficult it is for someone well meaning to broach the topic — and the more unpleasant it is for us to think about our unwise behaviors in the privacy of our own room. We avoid the issues.
Information is not the cure-all. Educating us to understand the complexities of health risks requires a shift in thinking that could take a couple of generations to take hold. Sometimes our frustrations and defensiveness seem insurmountable. So two choices are left: give up or keep trying.
Not coincidentally, these are the same choices every health-care worker has when trying to help a patient. Obviously there's only one right choice that helps both parties. To keep trying doesn't mean success; it means that patient and doctor show up at least semi-regularly — with ears open and with the hope that, equidistant from their frustrations, lies an understanding of why the other behaves the way he does. If we listen to each other in the doctor's office, maybe we'll all make fewer mistakes. Or at least we'll better understand the mistakes we keep making.
In the next few installments of Medicine Mensch, Zack will complete his last rotation as a medical student, travel to China, and get his M.D. Ask him about anything, or tell him how he's wrong, by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org.