Does knowing your health risks change behavior?
Why public health campaigns may have to rethink their messaging
by Arya M. SharmaExercise is good for you. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Stop smoking. Drink lessalcohol. Such messages abound in public health campaigns and there is a firm belief thatthey will ultimately change behavior. This is based on the assumption that individuals aremotivated to change behaviors to reduce their individual health risks.While healthy individuals may understandably ignore such messages, one wouldcertainly assume that people who already have conditions amenable to behavior change(like diabetes, heart or respiratory disease) would perhaps be more motivated to mitigatetheir risk by living healthier.This, according to a study just released by Statistics Canada, is not the case. It seems thatsimply knowing about health risks does not change behavior.In fact, the 12 years of longitudinal data from the Canadian National Population HealthSurvey among Canadians aged 50 or older shows that three in four smokers withrespiratory disease do not quit smoking, most people with diabetes or heart disease willnot become more physically active and virtually no one diagnosed with cancer, heartdisease, diabetes or stroke will increase their intake of fruit and vegetables.This does not bode well for public health promotion campaigns that simply appeal toCanadians to give up unhealthy behaviors to reduce their future risk of disease.If even those who are most likely to immediately benefit from changing their lifestylesfail to live healthier, what is to be expected of those for whom such recommendationsmerely promise better health somewhere in the distant future? Or, if even already havingthe condition does not change behavior, why would we expect mere fear of developingthe condition to be enough of a motivator?The solution cannot be more drastic or broader messaging. One would assume that peoplewith chronic diseases are already being provided a fair dose of health education andmessaging from their health providers – certainly more than could ever be offered to thegeneral public through broader health information campaigns.As many experts in health promotion are well aware, knowledge and warnings are theleast effective measures to change health behaviors. This is why many call for health policies that ban or restrict access to tobacco, alcohol and unhealthy foods as well as punitive measures, including taxation and fines or higher health premiums for those who persist.