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How bad is porn, really?

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert considers pornography “a public health crisis.”

Herbert made that remark on Tuesday while signing a bill that calls on state authorities to combat online porn, which it describes as a threat to the “sexual health of future generations.” It was drafted by Christian lobbyists at the National Center on Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE), formerly known as Morality in Media.

The new law, which “recognizes the need for education, prevention, research, and policy change at the community and societal level,” was introduced by Utah state Sen. Todd Weiler (R). The state senator claims that porn is “addictive” like cigarettes, which kill more than 480,000 people every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"What I am saying is we have taken steps to protect people from tobacco, but we haven't done that for pornography," Weiler told NBC News.

There is, however, no academic or scientific consensus to support Weiler’s claims.

In 2015, for instance, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, found that porn did not “light up” areas of the brain typically associated with addiction. The comparison, according to the study’s authors, may actually be harmful to patients.

“Some people clearly struggle to regulate their porn viewing habits, but it is important to know why,” Dr. Nicole Prause, a neuroscientist and the study’s lead author, told the Huffington Post. “Calling it an ‘addiction’ may be harming patients, so we should require healthcare workers to provide treatments supported by research.”

Dawn Hawkins, executive director of NCOSE—a group that accused the film Fifty Shades of Grey of promoting “domestic violence”—said that scientific research has tied pornography to “increased verbal and physical sexual aggression,” as well as “decreased brain matter” and “reduced impulse control.”

Hawkins was apparently citing research conducted two years ago by German researchers, later published by the journal JAMA Psychiatry, that showed “gray matter volume of the right caudate of the striatum is smaller with higher pornography use.”

Dysfunction in the striatum, which is a component of the brain’s reward system, has been tied to “inappropriate behavioral choices, such as drug seeking, regardless of the potential negative outcome,” the authors noted.

The study, however, was not conclusive in its findings.

Author Dr. Simone Kühn of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin told reporters that it was “not clear, for example, whether watching porn leads to brain changes or whether people born with certain brain types watch more porn.”

“Unfortunately,” Kühn said, “we cannot answer this question based on the results of the present study.”

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