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Misperceptions of smoking risk abound, Stanford research shows

Smoking is risky. But frankly, so is bicycling, driving in a car and eating sugary snacks. Our understanding of how risky, however, is hugely important, yet many of us struggle to wrap our minds around risk.

Now, new research from Stanford points out that our misperceptions about risk may be part of the reason that more than 20 percent of Americans continue to smoke.

"At first blush, this assertion [about risk] may seem patently implausible," the study authors admit, acknowledging the onslaught of public health and education efforts in past decades.

Yet a misperception of risk is exactly what the researchers, led by social psychologist Jon Krosnick, PhD, and political economist Neil Malhotra, PhD, found when they examined what smokers and non-smokers think about their perception of the chances of getting lung cancer. The findings appear in PLOS ONE.

In short, many of us, smokers and non-smokers, underestimate the effects of relative risk, but overestimate the effect of absolute risk. Relative risk compares the risk between groups. For example, stated in terms of relative risk, a smoker is seven times more likely to die of lung cancer than a non-smoker. In absolute risk terms, a smoker has a 3 percent overall chance of dying of lung cancer compared to a non-smokers' .4 percent chance.

Many past studies have focused on perceptions of absolute risk. Yet we actually think about relative risk, said Krosnick in a Stanford news release. And more accurate perceptions of relative risk could trigger people to stop smoking, the researchers believe.

“Telling people how many times that a person’s chances of getting lung cancer increase due to smoking may help the public make more informed choices,” Krosnick said.

For example, relative risk warnings are being used in Australia, containing messages such as "Tobacco smoking causes more than four times the number of deaths caused by car accidents."

“Since Americans underestimate the relative risk, it indicates some regulation of the industry is in order,” Malhotra said in the release.

Previously: E-cigarette brands make unvalidated claims their product helps people quit smoking, Bringing an end to smoking and Quitting smoking: Best drug differs for men and women
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