Do Graphic Images On Cigarette Packaging Keep Non-Smokers Away?

By Paul Gaita 12/17/18

A new study examined whether graphic warnings on cigarette packs worked to deter smoking. 

a hand crushing a pack of cigarettes that have a graphic image

A new study has found that cigarette advertising featuring graphic images associated with smoking – cancerous lesions and bleeding – might be as effective in influencing young people and adults to stay away from smoking as text-based labels on cigarette packs.

As Science Daily reported, researchers presented nearly 1,000 adult smokers and middle schoolers with randomly selected advertisements, some featuring upbeat images and scaled down warnings and others showing combinations of graphic warnings and the Surgeon General's warnings about cigarette use.

Participants reported feeling more negatively towards cigarettes after viewing the graphic warning in either text or image form, regardless of size, than text-only warnings, which suggested to the researchers that employing such warnings may be useful in countering the more positive imagery used by the cigarette industry.

The study, conducted primarily by researchers from Cornell University and funded by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), was carried out using 451 adults who smoked and 474 middle school-aged students, all from rural or urban low-income communities in the Northeastern United States. Each participant was randomly provided with a set of six advertisements for cigarettes with different presentations.

Some featured "positive" images – a group of happy people taking a selfie – in combination with a graphic warning label that covered 20% of the ad, while others were given ads that featured combinations of text-only warnings and more graphic warning images, as well as brand images and socially attuned imagery like the other set of ads.

Researchers asked participants to report whether they felt any negative emotions while viewing the images, while also tracking their eye movements to determine which part of the ad they viewed and for what duration of time. What resulted was the more graphic warnings – both text and image – drew more attention from participants than text-only warnings, including the Surgeon General's warning.

The graphic warnings also produced more negative feelings than the text-only warnings and helped to dampen the younger participants' opinions about the appeal of cigarettes.

“That's important, because there's pretty good evidence that the visceral reactions to these warnings are a main driver of their effectiveness," said lead author Jeff Niederdeppe, associate professor of communication at Cornell. "These ads are trying to create a positive brand image, and the graphic warnings help suppress that."

Niederdeppe also reported the researchers' surprise at finding that participants felt the same degree of negative feelings towards a graphic warning that covered a small (20%) portion of a full-page advertisement as they did towards a similar ad that covered 50% of a cigarette pack. "It suggests that 20 percent coverage on an advertisement is a high enough threshold to create the negative emotion," he explained.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites. 

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