Virtual ashtrays may hold clues to smoking desire

Hong Kong street ashtray

Hong Kong street ashtray

Do street ashtrays encourage smoking? It’s a central question of our Zero Smoke campaign, and one which must be answered scientifically.

Decent peer-reviewed studies on the question don’t exist. There have been experiments where “desire to smoke” is measured against a number of scenarios – for example, the interviewer is smoking, or there’s an ashtray or pack of cigarettes on the table against control groups where there’s none of that), but these are indoor scale, and the findings may not be scaleable up to street-scale.

A few weeks ago, I met Nobel Prize winning scientist Professor John O’Keefe – the man behind discoveries about the brain’s “inner GPS”. He made a very interesting point about the use of Virtual Reality (VR) and off-the-shelf computer games in scientific research (he has been using VR and games in Alzheimer’s research, looking at how the brain’s inner-GPS may be linked to indications of Alzheimer’s onset).

O’Keefe’s enthusiasm for VR is something which could be applied into research on the impact of street ashtrays on smoking.

Our concept, then, is a study measuring people’s desire to smoke at various points as they walk around a virtual Hong Kong landscape. We would use control groups and triggers such as street ashtrays, other smokers walking or congregating, or features such as a cigarette stall/newspaper kiosk.

We are now investigating how to take this forward and are having some interesting discussions with geography professors and spatial scientists, VR producers, social scientists and public healthcare professionals… this will be a true multi-disciplinary study which will hopefully lead to some ground-breaking experimentation into the subject of street ashtrays and smoking behaviour.

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