Huh researches the mystery behind the changing data on billboards (UPDATED POST-ISSUE)
When I was little, I was always amazed at billboards that constantly changed numbers. I believed that little minions, like oompa loompas, were behind the billboard working diligently to change numbers.
Well the other day, as I was driving by Santa Monica Blvd. right off of the 405 freeway, I noticed a billboard that screamed, “Smoking Deaths This Year and Counting.” Obviously having discredited my childhood assumptions, I wanted to figure out who was controlling the changing numbers. More importantly, I wondered how this person knew if someone died. When a person dies, does the EKG monitor wirelessly transfer information about a dead smoker? Does every hospital in the nation report every single smoking death? Is someone really dying when I see the numbers on the billboard change?
To start, I timed the rate of the changing numbers. The rate was variable, but one death occurred approximately every sixty seconds. A death a minute? That means by the end of this year, 525,600 people will die?! But in California or the whole United States?
Startled by this exorbitant amount, I started my “research” by emailing the American Cancer Society, and Mary, an online cancer information specialist, referred me to the Office on Smoking and Health (in the Center for Disease Control).
But the CDC only gave me esoteric information about the rates of smoking mortality, and I was only able to extrapolate one useful statistic. In 2000-2004, the “state-specific median estimate of the average annual number of smoking-attributable deaths among adults aged 35 and up was 36,687 for California.” This number was significantly lower than my estimate, so I was really confused as to how the smoking deaths were calculated, and my questions were still left unanswered.
The CDC referred me to the LA Department of Public Health, but the local health department had no affiliations with the billboard.
Finally, I was able to talk to Andy from the American Lung Association, and he said that “the terminal built into the billboard is reset every year and calculates the number of smoking-related deaths per minute based on a simple yearly algorithm.”
Why do the billboards make you think that someone is dying every time the number changes, when in fact the numbers is based on a statistical average? Why give citizens the wrong impression that people are dying every time the number changes? Even though smoking is bad, the anti-smoking companies shouldn’t scare people like that.
Now that I think about it, oompa loompas are a much better answer than statistics.