The Messenger of Autumn

The Intersection of Health Messaging and Truth

An impressive amount of thought and effort goes into messaging about health. Honorable people work diligently to move the population toward healthier lives. They craft messages for leading people to stop smoking, get their vaccinations, eat healthy, stay active and fit. The creativity and strategic skill are impressive. But one dimension of effective and sustainable health messaging sometimes escapes notice – truth and accuracy.

This is because messaging can easily stray from the truth in subtle ways that undermine credibility and the goal to enhance public health.

Tobacco Control Success and Missteps

Without a doubt, tobacco control has been one of the biggest success stories in the last 50 years. Both adults and youth are smoking less. Not only that, but smoking intensity is down in people who still smoke. Death rates have declined all over the world. Effective and truthful messaging have played a role in this success.

And yet, we now see messaging about vaping that increasingly leads smokers to stick with an unhealthy smoking habit – rather than reduce their risks with vaping. Exaggerating the dangers of vaping raises ethical issues and the possibility for negative public health outcomes.

Masks Anyone?

Early in the COVID pandemic, public health officials faced a daunting challenge. The response to an unprecedented pandemic was politically fraught and protective gear – such as face masks – was in short supply. So it seemed expedient to shade the truth and tell the general public that they didn’t need face masks to protect themselves from COVID. Then came an about-face and an enduring loss in credibility for public health. We all paid a big price for straying from the truth in this instance. Face masks became a painful point of contention throughout the pandemic.

Anti-Obesity Campaigns

From a well-intentioned desire to promote health has come any number of unfortunate anti-obesity campaigns. Catastrophizing obesity – trying to paint this chronic disease as an acute catastrophe – has served to promote bias, stigma, and a significant backlash from the people it marginalizes.

Likewise, obesity prevention campaigns that are not rooted in sound evidence for effectiveness have led to little progress in reducing the harm of obesity. Inflated claims of effectiveness simply serve to undermine credibility. We need to get real and follow the truth more carefully for obesity prevention.

The Truth Will Find You Out

Health messaging that may be effective in the short term will have unpredictable consequences in the longer term if it departs in subtle ways from objective truth. The truth will find you out – or set you free. The latter is preferable.

Click here, here, and here for further perspective.

The Messenger of Autumn, painting by Paul Klee / WikiArt

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September 25, 2022