Cigarette Warning Labels may be More Effective with Imagery, Research Finds

Cigarette warning labels with images depicting diseases caused by smoking help young adults learn about the dangers of lighting up, new research suggests.

A study appearing in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine suggests graphic images accompanying written health warnings on cigarette packs may help people better understand and increase their concern about how smoking can harm their health.

"Our outcomes suggest that focusing on enhancing understanding and knowledge from smoking warning labels that convey true consequences of smoking may not only influence motivation directly – both in terms of quitting and prevention of smoking – but may actually drive the emotional experience of the label, which we know is an important predictor of motivation," Renee Magnan, an assistant professor of psychology at Washington State University, Vancouver, said in a news release.

Magnan added that this was a preliminary study, but it suggested such labels could contribute to larger anti-smoking education campaigns.

Researchers took two groups of people between the ages of 18 and 25, which included both smokers and non-smokers, and asked, via an online survey about how much they learned about the harms of smoking from different warning labels.

Participants were shown labels highlighting the negative impacts of lung cancer, heart disease, stroke, impotence, eye disease, neck, throat and mouth cancers and vascular disease, some of which were accompanied by images of the disease. Some labels included pictures that showed the disease, while others were text only.

Young adults in both groups said the labels paired with images did a better job at giving them better understanding, more knowledge, caused more worry and did a better job at discouraging them from smoking than the text alone.

The only exceptions were images of a cigarette held limply in a hand, which was supposed to represent impotence, and an IV in someone's hand, which was meant to show a long illness, both of which received similar ratings to the corresponding text-only warning.

Magnan said in the news release she wanted to do this study because not much research has been done on whether people learn anything from the labels, although an increasing amount of evidence suggests images on warning labels may help discourage smoking.

Magnan’s research was conducted with colleague Linda D. Cameron of the University of California-Merced.

As part of the 2009 Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) published a final rule in 2011 requiring tobacco companies to include color graphics on cigarette packets warning consumers of the negative health implications of smoking. In August 2012, this rule was overturned by the government after it was challenged by several tobacco companies, who claimed such graphic warnings would violate the tobacco industry's right to free speech. This decision was upturned by the Supreme Court in 2013, giving the FDA permission to enforce graphic warnings on cigarette packets.

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