According to the CDC’s most recent data, almost half of all adult Americans have at least one chronic disease, and 70% of deaths are due to chronic disease – mostly heart disease, cancer and stroke. There are a couple major contributors to such illness: environmental factors, over which we have little individual control (e.g., air, soil and water pollution, chemical exposure through consumer products), and lifestyle factors, over which we have a great deal of individual control (e.g., diet, exercise, hygiene, smoking, drinking, drug use).
But here’s the tricky thing about chronic diseases: they seldom just crop up overnight. Typically, they’re the result of years of bad choices.
In the short term, it’s pretty easy for us to forget or ignore just how bad our choices might be. We seldom see any real harm. We can eat tons of highly processed foods and few vegetables for a long time before we might feel the effects. In the meantime, we just think they taste good. But years later, we may wind up with a diagnosis of diabetes, heart disease or cancer. A smoker can puff away for years before feeling any real physical impairment, let alone being diagnosed with cancer or emphysema.
We don’t realize what’s bad for us until it’s too late and the damage is done.
Even when we know the health risks, we can find all sorts of justifications for our choices: I’m too tired to exercise. Drinking helps me relax. I don’t have time to cook. Smoking gives me pleasure. We all have to die of something.
We humans can rationalize just about anything if we want to badly enough.
Still, health care workers, public health officials and others try to pound home the message of the need to make good choices. They remind us of the reality and consequences of bad choices, and do so in increasingly graphic, gross ways, such as last year’s infamous “fat soda” commercial and now the FDA’s proposed cigarette pack warnings.
Will they work? Maybe. For some. Miller-McCune‘s coverage of the story describes some interesting research showing that “ominous warnings” of health effect can actually wind up encouraging smoking in some groups of tobacco users.
But maybe part of the problem, as well, is that most of the worst effects of smoking occur where we can’t see them: inside our bodies. If we can’t see the damage, it’s a lot easier to deny its existence.
But there is one place where the damage is extremely visible: the mouth. Smoking not only discolors the teeth and makes your breath stink. It increases the risk of tooth decay and oral cancer. It also damages the gums and causes bone loss in the jaw, which ultimately leads to tooth loss. Here’s one of the FDA’s proposed warnings that shows some of these problems while focusing on the oral cancer risk:
To see and comment on the proposed warnings, visit the FDA’s page on the matter. Public comments are being accepted from now until January 11, 2011.