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Rabu, 06 Februari 2008

The Tipping Point 7

Chapter VII: Case Study – Suicide, Smoking, and the Search for Unsticky Cigarette

In 1960 suicide in Micronesia was an unknown phenomenon, while at the end of 1980’s Micronesia’s suicide rate was highest in the world, seven times higher than that of US. The suicides were mainly committed by teenage males and triggered by trivia, domestic problems such as problems with parents, brothers, girlfriend, etc. A study showed that the characteristic of the suicides was imitative and experimental, even almost recreational. Something rare and random in a normal world became trivial in Micronesia. Why?

Let us set aside the Micronesia’s suicide cases. In the US, a traditional anti smoking approach does not succeed in preventing teens from smoking. Indeed, in the past, the traditional antismoking campaign was backfiring, increasing teen smokers. Apparently, it is not enough just to tell teens about the danger of smoking. A research shows that teen smoking is not about rational reasons; it is about a mysterious behavior. Like suicide phenomenon in Micronesia, it is imitative and experimental, not to mention recreational.

The imitative behavior has been studied intensively by a lot of researches. One research studied how a street accident publicized in the news attracted more fatalities in the following days. The first incident gives permission to certain people. The person who gives “permission” to do something, like committing suicide and smoking, is called a permission giver, the role of a salesman.

A permission giver gives a specific instruction to the “intended” socially linked group, the associated subcultures to behave similarly. While not understood by people outside the linked group, the instruction is regarded as a certain kind of information by the group. In Micronesia, the permission giver was the infamous teen who committed romantic suicide because of a complicated love relationship with two girls. The infamous teen had the power of personality, family background, and a very sticky incident to tip an epidemic.

In the case of teenage smoking in the US, the role of permission givers is acted by a special group of people, i.e. cool smokers. Although smoking is not cool, smokers are often cool, giving permission to the associated subcultures to smoke. In some cases, the followers often beg to follow the suit, just to look cool: extrovert, having many friends, attractive, rebellious, taking more risks, and so on.

What happens to the followers after their first smoking? A study shows that it depends on their individual initial response to nicotine. Some people can experience a buzz when first smoking, in which case smoking is sticky for them. Other people’s first experiments are without buzz experience, only resulting in non-smokers or chippers (light smokers), in which case smoking is not sticky but still contagious. If the buzz is very high, the first smoking experiments result in heavy smokers in which case smoking is contagious and then very sticky. The research concludes that contagiousness is a function of environment, while stickiness is a function of gene.

Now, provided that we know there area two different types of problems in the spread of smoking, we can analyze two strategies: the contagiousness strategy and the stickiness strategy. On the one hand, preventing salesmen from smoking in the first place is part of the contagiousness strategy. Advising teens and providing teens with an alternative roles models and lifestyles are both also the contagiousness strategy. On the other hand, making nicotine substitutes and lowering nicotine level in cigarettes are in the stickiness side. Which one is the best for overcoming the problem?

According to various researches, both gene and environment have significant roles in shaping an individual’s personality. Quite surprisingly though, home or parent-control environment has less impact to kids' individual personality than peer pressure does. This suggests that it is hard for parents to prevent teens to experiment smoking in their adolescence. It is useless to do so. Unlike the contagiousness strategy, the stickiness strategy seems to be more effective. According to nicotine experts, it needs about three years of experimentation for an average teenager to get hooked, meaning parents have enough time to let their kids to be exposed safely given that cigarettes are no longer too sticky.

The stickiness strategy, however, cannot be used for all cases. Not all cases have that long three years of grace period. Bad things can happen very quickly in many cases. Some even are irreversible. The suicide epidemic in Micronesia is an example. (Lesson learned: there is no such panacea to cure all problems and we need to be careful especially in some severe cases – Y Pan)

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