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Celebrity cancer diagnosis promote cancer screening and prevention

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Celebrities who go public with diagnosis results in more smokers seeking information on quitting

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Last year, researchers from Legacy Research Institute surveyed 1,550 U.S. smokers ages 18 and over via email who had smoked at least 100 cigarettes in their lifetimes. Among the U.S. smokers polled 34% said they had planned to quit smoking in 2013.

Every year millions people of make the resolution to stop smoking but in reality only around 40% of people will keep it. Researchers from San Diego State University, the Santa Fe Institute, the University of North Carolina and the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health may have found a way to prompt more smokers to seek out information on quitting the nicotine habit.

In this new study John W. Ayers, research professor, San Diego State University and colleagues examined whether a celebrity cancer diagnosis could promote primary cancer prevention. It is already known that a celebrity diagnosis results in considerable media coverage of and increase interest in cancer screening.

For the study researchers used daily trends for smoking cessation-related media (information-availability) and Google queries (information-seeking) around Brazilian President and smoker Lula da Silva's laryngeal cancer diagnosis announcements were compared to a typical period and several cessation awareness events.

Researchers found that media coverage of smoking cessation was 163% higher than expected the week after the announcement but returned to typical levels the second week.

Smoking cessation queries were 67% greater the week after Lula's announcement,. Google related searchers for smoking cessation still remained higher by 153% during the second week of the announcement and 130% in third week and 74% in the fourth week.

"Lula's announced cancer diagnosis, though tragic, was potentially the greatest smoking cessation-promoting event in Brazilian history," said Professor Ayers.

There were 1.1 million excess cessation queries the month after Lula's announcement. “"Interest in quitting smoking, as indicated by Google searches, reached its highest recorded level after Lula's diagnosis, even when compared to traditional cessation awareness events such as New Year's Day or World No Tobacco Day."

Dr. Benjamin Althouse, PhD, ScM, Omidyar Fellow and Epidemiologist at the Santa Fe Institute and co-author of this study commented “In practical terms, we estimated there were about 1.1 million more quit-smoking queries in Brazil the month after Lula's diagnosis than expected. Not only will quitting prevent throat cancer, but it can prevent nearly all cancers, including lung, stomach, breast, etc."

According to Dr. Joanna Cohen, PhD, MHSc, Associate Professor and Director, Institute for Global Tobacco Control at the John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Lula’s announcement did more than have individuals search for smoking cessation. Brazilian legislators passed a number of new laws strengthening anti-tobacco measures in the country, making Brazil the largest smoke-free nation in the world.

In their conclusion the researchers write “Just as celebrity diagnoses promote cancer screening, they may also promote primary prevention. Discovery of this dynamic suggests the public should be further encouraged to consider primary (in addition to the usual secondary) cancer prevention around celebrity diagnoses, though more cases, cancers, and prevention behaviors must be explored.”

Dr. Seth Noar, PhD, Cancer Prevention and Control, Associate Professor Journalism and Mass Communication, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and co-author commented "This study is the first to demonstrate that celebrity diagnoses can prompt the public to engage in behaviors that prevent cancer.” "Harnessing this finding will save far more lives than screening alone."

In conclusion Dr. Ayers said "These kinds of events act as teachable moments when the public is more receptive to messages about cancer than is ordinarily the case. When these events take place, tobacco control and cancer prevention advocates should better leverage these opportunities to promote behaviors that will prevent all future cancers."

This study is published in Preventive Medicine.

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