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Why no-smoking signs are a waste of space

A sticker with a no smoking sign adorns the glass door of a Berlin shopping mall 31 January 2008.

JOHN MACDOUGALL/JOHN MACDOUGALL/AFP-Getty Images

Stop thinking about having a smoke, right now!

New research shows that, if you happen to be a smoker trying to kick the habit, this is about the worst thing someone can say to you.

(If you're not a smoker, try this: Whatever you do, do not think about a pink elephant.)

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See, you're thinking about one right now, aren't you?

A study out of Oxford University suggests that "No smoking" signs actually encourage people to smoke more, by increasing their nicotine cravings through the power of suggestion. (Take pity, then, on the poor smoker trapped in a flight from Toronto to Vancouver and stuck staring at that crossed-out cigarette next to the seatbelt sign.)

"If you're a smoker walking down a street, you're likely to pass five or six of these signs in windows or on doors," Brian Earp, the lead researcher, explained to the Daily Mail this week, also offering up the "pink elephant" test. "If you have a chronically positive attitude to smoking, this could boost your craving."

Mr. Earp presented his findings today at an annual meeting of the British Psychological Society in Glasgow. In his experiment, the researchers showed a group of American smokers various photographs, some with no-smoking signs in the periphery, others with the signs blacked out. He then used a "joystick test" to determine whether the smokers, who had shown no interest in smoking prior to the test, were now oriented toward having one.

His findings suggest that public health messages would do better to encourage positive behaviour rather than slap a red line through the negative actions, such as smoking or drug use.

"My hunch is that having all this 'don't do this' information out there may have ironic consequences."

The next question is: If no-smoking signs and the like don't work, what should they say?

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About the Author

Erin Anderssen writes about mental health, social policy and family issues. More

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