Facing consequences can help change harmful behaviors – Commercial Appeal

Sitting across the desk at the car dealership, Steven Ethridge, a soft-spoken salesman, was copying down the VIN number of our newly purchased van. “Last year, I couldn’t read the numbers,” he casually remarked.

As a doctor, I was curious why a middle-age man would have vision problems. So I asked him what was wrong.

“My vision was blurry,” Ethridge said. “I couldn’t read my text messages, and I was getting thirsty all the time. Once, on a road trip, I had to stop every hour for a bathroom break.”

Before I could say he had classic symptoms of a common disease, he continued.

“That’s when I went to my doctor and found I had diabetes.”

In America, 30 million people have diabetes, of whom fewer than a third are undiagnosed. In Tennessee, we have among the highest diabetes rates in the nation, and we are part of the so-called “diabetes belt.” In Shelby County, one of every 8 people has diabetes.

As we waited for our papers to process, Steven proudly told me about his efforts to control his blood sugar and weight. “My A1c level, (a measure of average blood sugar level within the past three months) had decreased from 9 to 6 percent, and I lost 40 pounds over the year.”

These simple changes likely increased his life span significantly.

Then, while he was picking up a sheet of paper, a pack of Marlboros slipped out of Steven’s shirt pocket.

“That’ll get you in trouble,” I said.

“I’m trying, but I just can’t get myself to stop smoking.”

This isn’t just Steven’s problem. Many Americans, despite what they know, continue to smoke. Behavioral scientists developed a framework to explain this phenomenon called the Knowledge-Attitude-Behavior (KAB) Model. This model demonstrates the wide gap between what we know and what we actually practice in our daily lives.

So how can we narrow this gap and promote healthier behaviors? Often it has to do with the disease itself. Steven took action to treat his diabetes because he had started to experience symptoms of the condition. Vision loss, frequent urination and excessive thirst all caused him immediate discomfort.

In contrast, Steven hasn’t experienced smoking’s negative health effects yet. Instead, each puff of nicotine satisfies jos craving, which only encourages him to smoke more. Most of smoking’s consequences, such as heart disease and lung cancer, will likely occur later in Steven’s life.

Introducing short-term barriers can reduce smoking rates. Studies have shown that raising cigarette prices presents a significant financial hardship to most smokers, particularly adolescents. Increasing the price of a pack of cigarettes by 50 cents would influence 10 percent of smokers to quit.

A behavioral change strategy involves reframing the way we perceive the consequences of our actions. If Steven can appreciate the harmful consequences of smoking, like he has for diabetes, maybe he would change his health choices.

“I want to live to see my son graduate, to be at his wedding. He’s only 6 years old, and I want to stick around for him. I know I can do it”

Agreeing with him, I smiled and said. “You’re a car salesman. You can do anything.”

Source : Commercial Appeal