It just adds up: Smokers with better math skills more likely to consider quitting

COLUMBUS, Ohio – The statistics associated with smoking cigarettes can be scary. More than 5 million people around the world die each year from smoking-related illnesses. The average life expectancy of a smoker is 10 years less than a non-smoker. Cigarette smoke contains over 7,000 chemicals, 70 of which are known to cause cancer. The list of alarming figures goes on and on.

But how well do smokers understand these statistics? And how much does that affect their likelihood of quitting? A new study by researchers at Ohio State University claims that smokers who are stronger with numbers are more likely to want to quit.

“People who had better math skills remembered more of the scary numbers about smoking risks that we gave them, and that made a difference,” explains lead author Brittany Shoots-Reinhard, a research assistant professor in psychology at OSU in a media release.

Numbers game

In the study, 696 smokers completed an online survey. At the start of the survey, participants were required to complete a standardized test that measured their ability to understand numbers, a skill referred to as “numeracy.”

After the numeracy test, participants were shown eight different cigarette warning labels. The labels included a variety of images that were accompanied by text warnings such as, “Smoking can kill you.” They also showed statistics related to health risks among smokers and non-smokers. For example: “75.4 percent of smokers will die before the age of 85, compared to 53.7 percent of non-smokers.”

To determine how well participants remembered smoking-related information, participants were asked to recall information from the experiment either immediately after the experiment or six weeks later. They were also quizzed on risks associated with smoking and how likely they were to quit within the next 30 days or one year.

What numeracy scores among smokers mean

The authors say that people who have higher numeracy scores tend to remember smoking-related risks better than those with lower numeracy scores. Further, those who score higher in numeracy are also more likely to say that they plan to quit smoking.

Researchers believe this explains studies that show smokers who are more educated are also more prone to kicking the habit.

“Smokers who are less numerate tend to have a very superficial knowledge about the health risks of their habit,” says Shoots-Reinhard. “What we saw here is that people who better understood numbers had a better understanding of the risks. We need to find a way to communicate that to people who aren’t as numerate.”

The study is published in Health Psychology.

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